by Paul Giblin
MOSCOW, June 12 (Xinhua) -- Real Madrid sprang to massive surprise in the run up to the World Cup finals on Tuesday evening when they announced that Spain coach Julen Lopetegui will replace Zinedine Zidane as their first team coach for next season.
The news is a shock for two reasons; firstly because it comes just three days before Spain kick off their World Cup campaign against Portugal in Sochi and secondly because less than a month ago Lopetegui signed a new contract to remain as Spain coach until after the 2020 European Championships.
The Spanish Football Federation (REFE) gave Lopetegui a vote of confidence after he took them to Russia after an unbeaten qualifying campaign and now they find themselves needing to find a new coach as soon as the World Cup ends.
On strictly sporting terms the move makes sense: Lopetegui already has six Real Madrid players in the Spain squad and has taken a seventh (Jesus Vallejo) along as cover for any late injury worries. He has also spent time working in the Madrid youth system and clearly knows the club well.
Madrid were clearly taken by surprise by Zidane's decision to step down after winning a third consecutive Champions League and given little time to react ahead of the finals. They also had a limited pool of coaches to call from with perhaps the number one candidate, Mauricio Pochettino priced out of the running after he also recently signed a new deal with Tottenham Hotspurs, which didn't include a get-out clause if Madrid came knocking.
Other candidates included Joaquin Loew, but he is also at the World Cup wit Germany, while Arsene Wenger, currently without employment, is clearly no longer of interest to Madrid president Florentino Perez.
Guti Hernandez, the former Real Madrid and Spain midfielder, who currently coaches the club's Junior team, had recently taken up pole position to replace Zidane, but his lack of experience was clearly a factor, despite rumors that he would get the job.
In the end it is Lopetegui at the cost of just 2 million euros that Madrid have to pay to the RFEF, who will take over the Bernabeu hotseat and perhaps club President, Florentino Perez is congratulating himself on surprising everyone pulling off what he must view as a coup.
But at what price has the signing come? In under 72 hours Spain kick off their World Cup campaign: a campaign where they are one of the favorites to lift the title. What effect must the news have had on the players - all of whom expected to have Lopetegui as their boss for the next two years?
There is a chance it won't affect them. They all want to win and football is about money these days, but it is hard to think Real Madrid's announcement will have improved the atmosphere in the Spain squad or strengthened the feeling of unity or given the players the confidence their coach is as focused on the tournament as they are, when he has clearly spent the last week in contract negotiations to move elsewhere.
Will Lopetegui now be able to focus 400 percent on taking Spain to their second World Cup title, when he also should be helping his new club prepare for the coming season after what is shaping up to be a busy summer in the transfer market?
Real Madrid like to present themselves as a 'gentleman' club; a club of honor, which represents the best of Spain: this action will be seen by many Spaniards as betrayal of the country's interests for those of a club.
Alfredo Relano, the editor of Spanish sports paper, Diario AS, was quick to react, publishing a comment piece in which he said Real Madrid were a "factory for producing people who hate Real Madrid," and the move is certainly not going to help the club's image, either at home or abroad.
Surely it would not have been so disastrous for the club to have waited until the end of the World Cup or until Spain were knocked out, before announcing the appointment, doing so now smacks of ego and self-interest over the national good.
And there is a major risk involved in what Madrid have done: If Spain win the World Cup, Lopetegui will arrive as a hero, but if they underperform and fail to get past the quarter-finals, he will be a disappointment and that will mean the knives are out for him from day one.