World Cup 2018: Spain sack manager Julen Lopetegui two days before first match

Spain sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui after he was named the new Real Madrid boss – two days before their opening World Cup match against Portugal.

Real Madrid announced on Tuesday that Lopetegui would succeed Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu on a three-year deal.

The Spanish football federation (RFEF) said it had dismissed the 51-year-old because the negotiation occurred “without any information to the RFEF”.

The World Cup in Russia starts on Thursday.

“I know it’s a very difficult situation. I know there’s going to be criticism whatever I do,” said RFEF president Luis Rubiales, who was told of Lopetegui’s new role five minutes before it was announced.

“I’m sure this will, in time, make us stronger. I admire Julen very much, I respect him very much. He seems a top trainer and that makes it harder to make the decision.

“You can’t do things this way, two or three days before the World Cup. We have been compelled to make this decision.”

Lopetegui became Spain manager in 2016 following Vicente del Bosque’s retirement, and remained unbeaten through his reign.

Spain won 14 of 20 games with Lopetegui in charge, drawing the remaining six.

According to reports in Spain, Rubiales was incensed when he discovered Lopetegui had agreed a deal with Madrid.

He left a Fifa Congress meeting in Moscow early in order to return to Spain’s base in Krasnodar.

It has been claimed senior players – including captain Sergio Ramos – fought for Lopetegui to remain in charge for the duration of the World Cup.

Spain begin their World Cup campaign against Portugal on Friday in a match live on BBC One (19:00 BST kick-off).

If Tuesday’s news that Julen Lopetegui had been appointed the new coach of Real Madrid came as a surprise, Wednesday’s bombshell that he has been sacked as Spain manager boosted the shockwave to an entirely new level.

The first sign that such a drastic move was on the cards came on Tuesday night when Spanish Football Federation Luis Rubiales made his displeasure plain by commenting that he would make the “right decision”.

On Wednesday morning everyone was guessing what that decision would be, with several reports claiming Rubiales had been persuaded against firing Lopetegui by Spain’s players, who were comfortable with him remaining in charge.

But that story soon proved to be yet another slice of misinformation when Rubiales held a sensational press conference to confirm the departure of the coach just two days before their World Cup opener against Portugal.

The federation chief, who has only been in his post for a month, made it very plain that the decision to fire Lopetegui was taken because of the way his departure for Madrid was handled.

Rubiales repeatedly and insistently stated the federation knew absolutely nothing about the negotiations until five minutes before the Bernabeu club sent a press release to reveal Lopetegui’s appointment – he also confirmed he had asked for the announcement to be delayed, but the plea went unheeded.

In a wider context, this shocking development is part of a wider political power play within Spanish football, with newly-appointed Rubiales seizing the first opportunity to show that the federation will not allow itself to be pushed around by anyone – not even Real Madrid.

Unconfirmed reports are now stating that under-21 coach Albert Celades and the federation’s director of football Fernando Hierro – a former Real Madrid defender – will take charge for the World Cup opener against Portugal. But with this crazy story, we should expect another twist or two.