‘I’d like to leave this press conference now because it’s like we’re at a funeral, but we’re starting a World Cup tomorrow, which is a fantastic event.” That’s how Spain captain Sergio Ramos attempted to put a full stop on a turbulent week for his national team in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
The remark was perfect in its delivery but perhaps suspect in its timing.
Timing, as it happens, has been a key issue in the Spain camp all week, so it felt somehow appropriate that Julen Lopetegui, the manager sacked on Wednesday for negotiating with Real Madrid without the Spanish Football Federation’s knowledge, was being presented to the media by his new club just 60 minutes later.
By Thursday, everyone had had a night’s sleep since Lopetegui’s dismissal, but there was still regret.
The man himself was tearful as he was unveiled at the Bernabeu alongside his wife and three children and, as Ramos and new Spain interim boss Fernando Hierro also faced a packed press room 3,000 miles from Madrid, the feeling persisted that all this could have been avoided.
With their opening match against Portugal just over 24 hours away, there were broad smiles as Hierro and Ramos walked in, conspiratorial whispers with the microphone nudged down and again the message was repeated: “It’s time to put it behind us.”
Only three weeks ago, Hierro was smiling in a different room, again in front of the cameras as he praised Lopetegui – a manager unbeaten in his 20 matches leading one of the game’s most exciting groups of players, and who had just signed a new contract up to 2020.
After the series of extraordinary events that has unfolded within the Spanish camp this week, Hierro is now the new leader of a team that says it is moving on but must be damaged by what is a mess of more than one man’s making.
Who you identify as villain in this story might depend on your point of view. But the key element is Real’s announcement on Tuesday that Lopetegui would take charge of the European champions after the World Cup.
That in itself would not have been a problem, but it became one when it emerged Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Football Federation, learned the news only five minutes before it was made public.
When Rubiales explained his decision to fire Lopetegui on Wednesday, reportedly on three hours’ sleep after talks ran late into the night, he still looked angry, even though his words were restrained. He had flown in from Moscow, where he was attending the Fifa congress, to the team’s base in Krasnodar.
In the Russian capital, he had received a phone call from Madrid. The story goes that he asked them to delay, he tried to reach Lopetegui but couldn’t, and then saw the news go live.
A shock apapointment so surprising that Spanish sports newspaper Marca told its Twitter followers: “No, we’re not making this up.”
The other side of the story is told by Madrid president Florentino Perez, who on Thursday claimed Rubiales had acted “out of pride” and “disrespected Real Madrid”.
Having dismissed his national team’s manager on the eve of the World Cup, Rubiales praised Lopetegui’s “impeccable work” but repeated several times: “No-one is beyond the rules.”
The 51-year-old was sacked because he had gone behind the back of the Spanish FA. He accepted a job he may have judged impossible to turn down and the manner in which it played out, in Rubiales’ eyes, made it impossible for him to continue.
Here in Sochi, sandwiched between snow-capped mountains and the blue Black Sea, fan opinion seems to be split.
Some side with Rubiales and his message: “This is the national team, this is not the way things should be done here.”
Some cannot forgive Rubiales for a lack of flexibility when pragmatism might have harmed the team less.
Lopetegui brought fine performances in qualification. Some argue sacking him weakens the team more than keeping him on, despite what might be considered incorrect behaviour. But none of the fans I have spoken to believe Madrid and their president Perez acted correctly.
I met Manolo, the iconic Spanish football supporter who has been banging his drum at every World Cup since 1982. “The whole thing is so regrettable,” he said. “It’s clear to see who is at fault – Real Madrid and Lopetegui. Rubiales did the right thing.”
Rubiales would not say whether the players agreed with his decision. Since it was made, some have tweeted messages of unity. Nonetheless, on Thursday, whispery leaks of uncertain provenance spoke of a supposed altercation between Ramos and Rubiales, with Gerard Pique the apparent peacemaker stepping in.
The closest Ramos – the man who will presumably captain Real Madrid under Lopetegui next season – came to addressing those rumours was to say of the past few days: “It has been a very sensitive time, and yes it made some of us feel a bit sad. But I can promise you, problems are also opportunities to grow into and this will make us stronger, more united.”
As for Lopetegui, he was already back in the Spanish capital, in another room of spectacle and scrutiny as he was presented to the media as Zinedine Zidane’s successor.
He is the new manager of Spain’s most popular team, a club many among the journalists present here believe has undermined the national team at close to the worst possible time.
Lopetegui was supported loudly by those present in Madrid as he posed for photos on stage.
“I would have liked Rubiales to have done things differently,” he said. “Since the death of my mother, yesterday was the saddest day of my life but today is the happiest.”
Applause came from what was clearly a partisan audience. But the biggest reaction came after the final exchange: Would the same thing have happened to you if it hadn’t been Real Madrid? The answer, left hanging: “That’s a good question.”
His replacement then: Hierro. In Spanish his name means ‘iron’. An ex-Real Madrid centre-back, a former Spain captain with 89 caps, an icon for club and country, he ended his playing career at Sam Allardyce’s Bolton in 2005 and, now 50 years old, has just been given his second job in management.
He resigned from his first in June last year, having missed out on promotion with Spanish second division side Real Oviedo. He was also Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant manager for the 2014-15 season at Madrid, and he has spent years working for the national team behind the scenes.
As sporting director he has been involved with this squad since November 2017, reappointed following a previous spell between 2007 and 2011. During that time Spain won the first of their two consecutive European Championships and the 2010 World Cup.There were only a handful of questions more on the subject everybody wanted to discuss before the Spanish press officer shut things down – only on the football now please. The ranks closed.
“We players like to do our talking on the pitch,” Ramos added.
Not long to wait before we find out what they really think.