It took Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui 35 years to build up a résumé suitable for his current job.
He was the right sort of player – he played (though just the once) for Real. He was the right sort of coach – at Real’s B team. He had the right amount of luck – falling into the job in charge of the Spanish national team just as the program began to rediscover its form.
Then he passed the trial of fire – agreeing to join Real two days before the start of last summer’s World Cup, which led to his immediate sacking by Spain. It was a humiliation, but Lopetegui clearly considered it worth the prize.
And, in the way of these things, a few months after realizing his dream, it’s coming apart in a hurry.
Whenever you complain about how knee-jerk your favourite club or its fans are, think of Real. There is hysteria, and then there’s whatever constantly surrounds this club. It’s like an electrical field of desperation. No amount of winning can dispel it.
Lopetegui inherited a team that had won the European title three years running. The only thing lost to them over the off-season was Cristiano Ronaldo. Given Ronaldo’s legal issues – a 2009 rape accusation that resurfaced last week – Real may be counting themselves lucky on that score.
On Monday, France Football began announcing the long list for the Ballon d’Or award for the world’s top player. Of 30 nominees, eight play for Real. It’s essentially the starting lineup. Real’s Luka Modric is the bookies’ favourite to win.
The team’s revenue is astronomical, having just crossed the billion-dollar threshold annually. It carries no debt – unusual for a major soccer outfit. They finished a full stadium renovation a few years ago. The team is a non-profit trust, so it can’t be pillaged by an idiot owner.
No sports franchise in the world is on more solid footing, in every conceivable way.
But Real hasn’t scored a goal in four games.
So now it’s panic stations.
On the weekend, Real lost 1-0 to Alaves. It was a little like the New York Yankees losing to your office softball team. Alaves had not beaten Real at home in a league contest in nearly a century.
The defeat was as embarrassing as possible – the game’s only goal scored in the 95th minute.
The little guys celebrated as if they’d all just won a lottery. Real swooned as if they’d just lost some sort of final.
Lopetegui was already teetering before the game started and had found his stock response: “It’s October.”
That wasn’t working too well a couple of hours later. Only at Real can a coach find himself in existential danger a dozen matches into his tenure.
Somebody went to the players for a word of support. God love Europeans – they’ll flat out ask players if the coach should be fired. If you tried that here, there’d be blood on the ground.
“When it comes to making changes, there are others who take those decisions. It’s not up to the players,” said Real’s headman in the room, Sergio Ramos. “For the squad, it is never good that there is a change of manager. … It would be madness.”
That sounds like a supportive statement, but it isn’t really. It’s the kiss of death – “It’s not up to the players.”
Ramos is used to how this goes. He’s been at Real for 14 years. He’s had 11 managers. You don’t get attached.
Lopetegui has the added misfortune of wobbling just as a few major names are about to come into play.
After two years of dithering at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho is close to walking the plank. He’s spent most of the season thus far warring with the media, his employers and his own players. This is Mourinho’s usual mode when things get bad – rather than trying to avoid being fired, he rushes headlong toward it.
He’d be someone Real would want, if only to calm their fans.
If you believe the rumour mill, Real’s last manager, Zinedine Zidane, is preparing to take over at Man U. Once you penetrate that top layer, you can be fired, but you will never be out of work if you choose.
Former Italy boss Antonio Conte is still sitting at home collecting cheques from Chelsea. He’s the sort who looks good on a touchline.
And, cruellest of all, the manager of Real Madrid B – Lopetegui’s first big job – is said to be in the running.
All of this to-do adds another layer of fascination to the season’s first El Clasico – Real at Barcelona – on Oct. 28. If Lopetegui loses that game, he will almost certainly be fired.
He’ll probably be fired anyway at some point in the near future. Once the hounds catch your scent at Real, you’ll spend the rest of your time there running.
It’s in these moments that you see why Real – and, to a lesser extent, Barcelona – has so captured the world’s imagination. It’s not the players, or not just them. It’s that the club has sped up the lifecycle of sporting dramas.
What takes three years to happen at another club – bad season, followed by worse season, followed by disaster season, followed by cleansing fire and renewal – takes three months at Real. There are no second chances. There are no excuses.
No one cares that it’s October. At Real, it’s always the day before the end.
Other teams in other countries in other sports couldn’t do it this way. But imagine if they could?