Lopetegui sacking, drastic and unprecedented

The system clicked and England reached the semi-finals, their second best performance till date, and finished fourth.

Spain sacked their national coach on the eve of the World Cup, an unprecedented and drastic step, which could have repercussions on the team. It is learnt that senior players in the squad cut across the differences between Real Madrid and Barcelona and pleaded with the Spanish football federation to let Julien Lopetegui stay on for the World Cup but their request was rejected.

The reaction seems extreme because a national coach signing for a high profile club team on the eve of the World Cup has happened in the past. In 2014, Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach had already signed for Manchester United. It did not affect the Netherland’s performance as they finished third.

In 1990 the late sir Bobby Robson had told the English Football Association that he would be resigning after Italia 90 and joining PSV Eindhoven. I met Bobby Robson when he toured India with PSV during the Super Soccer series in 1990-91 and asked him how the players had reacted to his future plans during the World Cup.

He categorically said that the players were very supportive and gave the same commitment. He had also told me that it helped him relax and focus on going out on a high as he knew he had a settled job with a club after the 1990 World Cup got over. He said that it took some of the pressure away and enabled him to think clearly. In consultation with the players,Robson made England shift to a three back system in their second match after losing to Republic of Ireland 0-1 in their opening group match. The system clicked and England reached the semi-finals, their second best performance till date, and finished fourth.

So it seems that Lopetegui’s cardinal error was in not telling the Spanish football federation that Real Madrid had approached him. The federation president, Luis Rubiales, seemed miffed at the secret deal. Also Real Madrid President Florentino Perez could have been more cautious, sealed the deal and announced it later. He put club above country in this case a charge normally levelled against the Catalans. So it really seems a case of much ado about nothing

How could this affect Spain, one of the favourites for the World Cup? This sudden change of coach could either make them very determined and united like Italy in 2006 and they could go on to win the World Cup or it could destroy morale and lead to an early exit.

Russia’s thumping 5-0 win over a hapless Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup should be a wake up call for Fifa about the disparity of standards. Fifa president Gianni Infantino had announced that improving standards justified the increase of participating teams to 48 in either 2022 or 2026 World Cup. However, the way Russia demolished Saudi Arabia showed the gulf in standards between the fourth best Asian team and a European country ranked 70th in the world is immense. Russia’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev remained untroubled in the match.

If the World Cup is increased to 48 countries, there will be more such one sided matches and will ruin the competitive nature of the tournament at least in the league phase.

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