Real Madrid president Florentino Perez called the Spanish federation’s decision to fire Julen Lopetegui an “absurd reaction” as he introduced the club’s new coach on Thursday.
Madrid on Tuesday shocked everyone by announcing Lopetegui as Zinedine Zidane’s replacement on the Bernabeu bench once this summer’s tournament was over. But a day federation president Luis Rubiales reacted to what he saw as a betrayal by immediately firing the coach just two days before Spain’s opening game.
Lopetegui flew back from Russia on Wednesday night and was at the Bernabeu on Thursday to sign his contract with Perez and be presented to the media. Many of the questions centered around who was to blame for the firing, but Perez and Lopetegui both said they had always acted with full clarity and transparency.
“There’s no argument that justifies Julen Lopetegui not being on the Spain bench tomorrow,” Perez said.
The event started with Perez making a long prepared speech in which he said Rubiales’ actions in firing Lopetegui were deliberately aimed at hurting the image of Real Madrid.
“We wanted to do this event after the World Cup, after another win by the national team,” Perez said. “But a series of events mean we are here today.
“Real Madrid and Lopetegui made an agreement to work together, always respecting the clauses of all contracts. We reached an agreement very quickly [on Tuesday], in a few hours, and wanted to make a show of transparency, to avoid all rumours and speculation. I told the federation president about the agreement, which both sides were free to make.
“There was an absurd reaction of misunderstanding and pride, aimed hurting the prestige of Real Madrid and damaging the image of our club in one of greatest periods of our history.”
Lopetegui has also taken some heat for the way things went down, but he insisted he was above blame for having discussions with Madrid while Spain were preparing to face Portugal in Sochi on Friday.
“We are convinced that all we have done is absolutely honest and clear,” Lopetegui said. “The reaction afterwards we cannot do anything about. I am very relaxed, all of us [at Madrid] are as we have done nothing wrong. If someone wants to understand things another way, they can. But we have been professional and transparent.
“There are many precedents [of a national coach moving to a club after a tournament]. We tried to be transparent, I am very clear that I have been fully loyal, no doubts.”
Lopetegui said he would be supporting the Spain side through the World Cup, while also having a couple of digs at turmoil at the federation since he took over the national team after Euro 2016.
“As one more Spaniard I feel part of the national team and are sure they will have a great tournament,” he said. “I will support this magnificent group of players. In two years I have had four presidents in the federation. We survived with the strength of the squad, the team and that strength can make them world champions.”
A former Madrid Castilla [youth team] player and coach, Lopetegui was a goalkeeper who played just one game for the senior Blancos side, before later representing Rayo Vallecano, Logrones and Barcelona.
“Yesterday was the saddest day of my life, since the death of my mother, but this is the happiest day,” he said. “I came here aged 18 to play for Castilla, had the good fortune to experience what madridismo is, the values, the loyalty. I then had the fortune to coach Castilla, and now have this great responsibility to coach Real Madrid. It is a closed cycle, and I am very happy.”
On being reminded that just a few weeks ago he had called Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi the best player in the world, Lopetegui drew cheers from the assembled VIP audience by offering his full support to Cristiano Ronaldo, despite the Portugal captain’s professed desire to leave the Bernabeu this summer.
“Cristiano is a player I have always admired, and would always want at my side,” he said. “He is clearly the best in the world at Real Madrid.”
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan