World Cup 2018: Are Spain Out Even Before a Ball is Kicked?
Spain, they said, were World Cup contenders once again. The humiliation of Brazil 2014 and the capitulation in Euro 2016 could not be forgotten just yet, but the epitaph to La Roja needed to be revoked. Such was Spain's dominance in the qualifying campaign.
The former World and European Champions had, for an era, been the team to beat for everybody. Two Euros and a World Cup engineered by their own brand of stylish football had made it seem that Spain might remain invincible for many years to come.
However, all good things must come to an end. And it arrived, unexpectedly, bitterly for the Spaniards when the Netherlands walked over them in their group stage encounter in Brazil in 2014. La Roja were broken, never to recover in that campaign.
There was a sense of rejuvenation at the Euros that was cut short by a canny Italian side and it seemed Spain's tactics had been unraveled by the world for good.
Xavi Hernandez had bid goodbye while fellow magician Andres Iniesta is nearing the twilight of his career. Spain needed to reinvent themselves before the start of another arduous World Cup qualifying campaign that had old rivals Italy in their group.
The man given this unenviable task was Julen Lopetegui. He was, after all, inheriting a mixed group of veteran world champions still scarred from recent setbacks. Not only did he need to eviscerate the recent memories but also engender a new football philosophy.
A few months later, Spain's absolute domination of their group meant he had succeeded in both his tasks. Unbeaten and resilient, Spain, led by the mercurial Sergio Ramos and trained by the pragmatic Lopetegui were world contenders again.
The humbling of Italy in the home game was perhaps the biggest proof that this Spanish team could, in theory, replicate the success of previous iterations. They had, after all, won nine of their 10 qualifying matches.
The End, again?
Things might have come a full circle in shocking fashion just three days ahead of the big-ticket opener versus Portugal. The 51-year-old Lopetegui had been suddenly announced as the Real Madrid coach, set to take over after his World Cup campaign.
A minor aberration, possibly, bad timing, surely. Yet no one expected the knee-jerk reaction that ensued from the Spanish football federation. The president Luis Rubiales, apparently cut short his appearance at the FIFA Congress to fly to Spain's base before sacking the coach.
He said he felt betrayed by Lopetegui's conduct, that he and Real had gone behind their backs, that he had only got to know of the news five minutes prior to the official announcement.
The sense of hurt is understandable because Lopetegui had recently signed a new contract that would have kept him as the national manager till 2022.
But, surely this is an overreaction and one has to concur with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez that this is an 'absurd' step taken out of vanity and misunderstanding.
Lopetegui broke down at his official unveiling calling the previous day one of the 'saddest' of his life and one can understand his emotions. Many have defended Rubiales' actions saying he acted with propriety, that he had no other option but to stand up for the autonomy of the federation.
Meanwhile, Fernando Hierro has been given the stop-gap job of stewarding the team in the World Cup. Let us consider the footballing aspect of the matter with perspicacity. The federation's primary task is to ensure that the team has the best chance of succeeding at the Cup. By sacking Lopetegui and appointing Hierro they have taken that away.
Under the previous coach the team had settled down to a cohesive style, there was confidence in their ranks and self-belief engendered by recent successes. It is extremely difficult for someone new to come in and set up the same kind of synergy, let alone at a World Cup.
Yes, the players will still remain committed to the cause but they would have been unduly bothered by the commotion caused by all the drama.
The World Cup is an unforgiving tournament, a slip-up against the European Champions Portugal - led by the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, who will go out all guns blazing in what could be his final World Cup - might be a telling blow on the team's character and confidence.
Lopetegui's sacking might just have set up the ground for such a collapse and the Spanish federation had, for all intents and purposes, scored an own goal before the Cup has begun.
Lopetegui, meanwhile, will go down as one of the very few managers of a national team who was sacked despite remaining unbeaten and winning 14 of the 20 matches he was in charge.