Having only recently signed a new contract with Spain and never made his mark in club football, Julen Lopetegui’s appointment as Real Madrid coach on Tuesday came as a shock to even the most seasoned observers. After a career that has been pockmarked by extreme highs and lows and, given a record in club management that has seen him fired by second-tier Rayo Vallecano and Porto after 18 trophyless months, the appointment represents a huge gamble for Real.
The former Real and Barcelona goalkeeper was never mentioned among the runners and riders to replace Zinedine Zidane, who stepped down two weeks ago, and had only signed a new deal to lead Spain through to Euro 2020 at the end of last month. Yet perhaps the answer to why Real turned to a largely unproven club coach lies in the success they had with Zidane. He had not had a senior job in club management before he took over at the Bernabeu and led the club to three straight Champions League titles.
While it will be almost impossible for Lopetegui to replicate Zidane’s success, his track record of bringing through young players will have also played a crucial role in the club’s thinking. If the way he led Spain’s Under-19s and Under-21s to glory was impressive, his ability to usher a new generation of players into the national team following Vicente del Bosque’s departure after Euro 2016 has been even more remarkable — and he remains unbeaten in all 20 of his games as Spain coach.
With many of Real Madrid’s key players, such as Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, all in their 30s, there is a changing of the guard required at the European champions. Lopetegui also has a good relationship with younger talents like Isco, Marco Asensio and Dani Carvajal, all of whom are seen as central to Madrid’s future.
While the move is perhaps a gamble for Madrid, it is undoubtedly an unwanted distraction for Spain on the cusp of a World Cup where they are one of the pre-tournament favourites. They now go into Friday’s opener against Portugal amid a backdrop of upheaval, which they cannot allow to derail their campaign.
There is a precedent for Spain with Luis Aragones having announced his departure prior to Euro 2008 where he led the national team to glory. That decision, however, was pre-planned and players knew months, rather than days, in advance. For the six Real players named in the Spain squad, it will no doubt provide extra motivation to impress their future boss.
Yet how well the likes of Barcelona’s Gerard Pique take to being ordered around by the Bernabeu-bound coach will be a true test of Lopetegui’s management. Spanish radio station Radio Marca reported on Tuesday that all six Madrid players had been informed of the decision. When another member of the squad found out, however, the decision was taken to make the news public in order to avoid disharmony behind the scenes.
How well they perform against Portugal in their Group B opener on Friday will no doubt give some indication of how the players have taken the news.