Is Julen Lopetegui the man Real Madrid thought they were getting?
As the manager of Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane had a terrific knack for making sure he was never the main event. Even when he was the decisive character, it was typically others who made headlines while he made history. He managed to disappear like a gust of wind once he made his mind up that his time at Real Madrid was finished. And the club have been on a mission to replace their former manager with someone as close to the Frenchman in terms of temperament as possible.
It was all very regrettable in the end, even if both Julen Lopetegui and Florentino Perez were unapologetic in their speeches during the former’s presentation as Zidane’s replacement on Thursday night. The decision has been made. Nothing can be given or taken back and all that’s left is for each side to make the best of an unfortunate situation. There will be analysis and articles, speculation and finger-pointing but in the end, Lopetegui might feel like the unluckiest man in the world after everything that transpired.
And Real Madrid might be left wondering if Lopetegui is the level-headed, strong-willed manager they needed in the wake of Zidane’s resignation.
It has become a cliche for a new manager at a club to say they “couldn’t say no” when their new boss came calling. Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, however, reminded us that you can, in fact, turn down even the biggest club in world football. Real Madrid’s first choice had just signed a new deal in London when Zidane marched out the door at the Bernabeu and into the sunset. Pochettino’s word was given to Daniel Levy and that trumped everything.
But the difference between Lopetegui and Pochettino is that the Argentine believes in the process of what he is doing and, given what we have seen over the course of the last few days, it seems Lopetegui doesn’t. He had to take the call, and say yes, because there is an underlying sense that this call wouldn’t come again.
Pochettino believes his management skills will offer him the opportunities he deserves in the future; Lopetegui isn’t quite sure after a previously unsuccessful spell in Porto when he failed to win a trophy in a year and half before having his contract terminated unilaterally.
On ESPN FC recently, as Real Madrid’s search for a coach continued, a list of almost 20 managers linked with the role was put together. And Lopetegui was not on it. Surely, when the call came, he knew that he wasn’t in their top five candidates. Surely, he knew that they were getting a little desperate and surely, he could put those sentiments together to ask the club to wait if they really wanted him, given the task he was about to embark on in Russia.
In an ideal world, Lopetegui would have given Real Madrid a preliminary “yes” before assuring them there would be time to talk after the World Cup, or indeed during it. He could have let his superiors know at that point about the contact and this all could have been avoided. Instead, Real Madrid said jump, Lopetegui asked how high and then the mat he had planned to land on was pulled from under him on his way back down.
It’s unfortunate too that Lopetegui might have gotten away with something like this in previous regimes. Instead, he was faced with a new president in Luis Rubiales, who ran for the role with the message that he would clean up the Spanish football federation, be tough with the bigger clubs along with assurances that Spanish football was the most important thing about football in Spain and not singular institutions.
And now, Real Madrid have a manager who will possibly be roundly booed as he travels to away games during his time at the club… for a start anyway. A job that needs no extra attention has the telescopes of journalists and fans trained directly on it.
In the end, it was four people acting in their own interest, which they are entitled to do, starting with Zidane, who left his role without much concern over his replacement. Perez, who had lost some control over the situation, reaching out to managers in search of the right man to take the job with little or no care for the collateral damage he might incur. Lopetegui decided to ride the back of his incredible form with Spain to potentially safeguard his future by accepting the Real Madrid job. Rubiales was willing to make a really tough decision in the present to ensure his future would be easier.
But Lopetegui, who initially looked like the winner, is the one with the most to prove now. The 51-year-old admitted the day he was sacked by Spain was the toughest day of his life, but if he doesn’t get off to a flying start in white, there are much tougher days ahead.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC’s Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne