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In the span of a mere 90 minutes, Spain collapsed, rallied and capitulated in the wake of the immense and unexpected turmoil it was thrown into just a day before the World Cup kicked off.
You likely know the story by now. On Wednesday, on the eve of the tournament in Russia and just over 48 hours until Spain would play a crucial game against Portugal, the Spanish federation fired manager Julen Lopetegui. In an instant, Spain went from one of the three favorites — along with Brazil and defending champions Germany — into the biggest question mark in the field.
Lopetegui had only just renewed his contract with the federation a few weeks earlier but jumped at the chance to manage Real Madrid following Zinedine Zidane’s departure. He was supposed to join following the tournament. But he’d neglected to inform new federation president Luis Rubiales until a few minutes before the announcement, keeping negotiations a secret. Rubiales took issue and, in spite the his players’ protestations, fired his manager, replacing him with Fernando Hierro, who was a national team (and Real Madrid) stalwart but remains largely unproven as a manager.
You can argue about the rationale of the firing. Even in the most flattering light, Lopetegui’s handling of the situation was devious. Perhaps he figured there was no way the federation would hamstring its team by dumping him just hours before a World Cup it could conceivably win. If he did, he was wrong.
And likewise, you can see why the federation might be concerned about the disruption to the precarious and all-important balance between the Real Madrid and FC Barcelona camps within the team. Spain didn’t become an effective and winning national team until a peace was finally brokered between the cliques of these arch-rivals a decade ago. Lopetegui becoming a manager for one of those teams took a pickax to that peace, suddenly casting all of his decisions regarding players from either team — which is at least half a dozen starters — in a dubious light.
There’s hardly any telling which way a team will swing when it’s shaken to its very foundation just before a tournament. Sometimes it works out. Like when Denmark was only admitted to Euro ’92 10 days before it was to kick off, after Yugoslavia was banned. The Danes, some of them called home from the beach, promptly romped their way to the only major tournament they’ve ever won. In 2006, Italy was plunged into the sprawling Calciopoli scandal, but it galvanized the team as it lifted the World Cup.
But just as often, things turn bad. Like when the United States ostracized captain John Harkes just before the 1998 World Cup. The Americans lost all three of their games. In 2010, France’s disharmony with its manager Raymond Domenech came to a head when he kicked Nicolas Anelka off the team during the group stage. His remaining colleagues went on strike, refusing to practice, and would be eliminated without a win just four years after losing the World Cup final on penalties.
World Cups are pressure cookers, a heady mix of towering expectations and a lot of free time as teams wait almost a week between games. In that combustible situation, a healing camaraderie can be formed. Or problems fester. It’s hard to predict.
In its opener against defending European champions Portugal on Friday, Spain went … both ways.
Spain looked like it had several personalities as it went behind, came back to to take a lead, and then gave it up again in an epic 3-3 tie that instantly became one of the best World Cup games in memory. In the end, the Spaniards were no match for Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick, who doubled his all-time World Cup scoring tally in a single game.
After just two minutes and change, Nacho brought down Ronaldo with a daft challenge in the box. The long-time Real Madrid striker took predictable advantage of his club teammate’s error, smashing home the penalty kick. But Diego Costa, the Brazilian-born buffalo up front for Spain, bulled his way through the Portuguese back line in typical Diego Costa fashion and tied things up. Isco’s volleyed rocket and Andres Iniesta’s finish both nearly put Spain ahead.
It seemed like Spain had overcome its early jitters, only for David De Gea, one of the world’s best and most reliable goalkeepers, to make a cataclysmic error on a long Ronaldo shot, letting it slip under his hands and through his legs.
After halftime, Costa quickly equalized on a door-step tap-in. And Spain finally took the lead with a stunning Nacho volley that caromed in off the far post from outside the box. But then there was that Ronaldo again, artfully curling in a late free kick.
Which leaves us all at a loss in figuring out just where the Spaniards stand. Their sheer ability and bottomless experience shone through at times, but then so did an apparent disquiet in the form of uncharacteristic errors.
The good news is this: with a point secured — and a loss avoided — in Spain’s toughest game, more should follow against a beatable Morocco and an overmatched Iran. Passage into the next round should be straightforward, and whoever La Furia Roja would face in the round of 16 — likely Uruguay or Russia — probably won’t terrify them either.
With five days until it faces Iran, Spain now has time to regain its bearings and settle in under Hierro. Provided it doesn’t fall apart in the meantime.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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