Football

Hierro left to clean up Spain's mess

Former Real Madrid defender takes over La Furia Roja after Lopetegui gets the sack

With just days to go before their World Cup opener against Portugal, Spain's biggest worry should have been about who among their talented squad should make their first XI.

GROUP B
 PORTUGAL SPAIN

Instead, the main preoccupation will be over a change in the coach, after Julen Lopetegui was sacked by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) yesterday evening.

RFEF sporting director Fernando Hierro, 50, has been appointed to replace Lopetegui and clean up the mess.

While not a first foray into management for Hierro, the former Real Madrid defender, it is nevertheless a daunting task.

He has never managed a team in a major competition.

His only previous experience as a head coach was leading second division Oviedo to eighth in 2016-17, missing out on the play-offs.

Local media reports suggested that the majority of the squad were fiercely opposed to RFEF president Luis Rubiales' decision to dismiss Lopetegui for agreeing to become Real Madrid's new coach after the World Cup without permission.

In particular, the core of Under-21 players he helped bring through to the senior side, including David de Gea, Dani Carvajal, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Koke, were said to be among the most vocal for keeping the coach in place.

Other players were said to be uneasy at the thought of being managed by Real's new coach.

Hierro's first task will be to unite the group. It is times like these when countries sink or swim.

Spain's Euro 2008-winning coach Luis Aragones signed a deal to take over at Fenerbahce on the eve of that tournament's semi-final but that did the national side no harm.

A peer of Lopetegui's, Hierro was a goalscoring defender who made 601 appearances for Real, captaining club as well as country.

He had spells in Qatar and England before retiring and has held a number of roles, including sporting director at Malaga and the Spanish FA as well as serving as Carlo Ancelotti's assistant at Real in his final season.

Already part of the backroom staff in Russia, he is understood to have a good relationship with the squad and, as an 89-cap veteran of the national team, nobody can suggest he does not know how tournament football works.

Will merely his aura and experience be enough to inspire a squad which many consider to be one of the best at the tournament?

From the Segunda to Sochi, it is not the most well-trodden of paths but one Hierro has had to take in order to try to get Spain back on track.

Former Spanish international Xavi Hernandez criticised the timing of Real's announcement that Lopetegui was taking over as coach.

Speaking to Radio Marca, the former Barcelona midfielder added that a change in coach could also strengthen the team's resolve to do well.

"The players have already seen it all and sure, they can play a good role at the World Cup. Leadership will not be missing, there is (Sergio) Ramos, (Gerard) Pique, (Andres) Iniesta.

"It's not the best situation but, at the same time, it could unite them more."

Football