Lopetegui: Spain firing 'saddest day' since mother's death
By JOSEPH WILSON
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Julen Lopetegui said being fired as Spain coach two days before its opening match at the World Cup was possibly "the saddest day of my life" since his mother died, and joining Real Madrid as its new coach was "the happiest day of my life."
The 51-year-old Lopetegui made the emotional remarks when he was officially introduced by Madrid on Thursday at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
It has been a tumultuous three days for Lopetegui, and Spain's national team.
Lopetegui was fired by Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales on Wednesday - a day after Madrid made the unexpected announcement that Lopetegui had agreed to leave for European champion Madrid after the World Cup in Russia.
Rubiales said he felt "compelled" to fire Lopetegui because the coach and Madrid had kept him in the dark until five minutes before the club made the deal public.
Madrid president Florentino Perez denied his club had acted improperly and slammed Rubiales for firing Lopetegui.
"It was a disproportionate and unjust response that is without precedent," said Perez. "Some people will do anything to hurt the image of Real Madrid."
Perez said that Madrid informed Rubiales as soon as the deal was done.
"Those who say we hid something are wrong," Perez said. "We reached a deal ... and wanted to make it public so as to avoid leaks that could disrupt the work of the national team."
Madrid's hiring of Lopetegui as Spain was finalizing its preparations for the most important tournament in global soccer drew widespread criticism in Spain.
But his dismissal has divided fans and the sports media. Some feel Lopetegui would have had a conflict of interest with six Madrid players in Spain's squad; others argue forcing his exit only creates more chaos.
Fernando Hierro, a former Spain player who had been acting as the team's sports director in Russia, replaces Lopetegui for the tournament.
Lopetegui said that Spain's players received the news he had taken the Madrid job left vacant by Zinedine Zidane "fantastically."
"The practice session we had after I told them was the best of the week," Lopetegui claimed. "They had absolutely no problem with it."
Spain's players have not commented directly on Lopetegui's exit.
Veterans Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique issued calls for unity via Twitter, and Ramos said on Thursday that "we need to turn the page as soon as possible" to focus on Friday's game against Portugal in Sochi.
Lopetegui said he will watch Spain's opening match and "cheer just like any other Spaniard."
Lopetegui signed a three-year contact with Madrid. He takes the place of Zidane, who stunned Madrid two weeks ago by saying he was leaving after winning an unprecedented three straight European Cups.
He also inherits the doubts surrounding star forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, both of whom put their futures at the club in doubt after Madrid's victory over Liverpool in the Champions League final last month.
Lopetegui kept Spain unbeaten through 20 matches in charge and guided it to a first-place finish in a qualifying group that included Italy for the 2018 World Cup.
He won European championships with Spain's under-19 and under-21 teams in the early 2010s, but had a lackluster stint with Portuguese team Porto in his only job with a major club. He was fired after failing to win a title during almost two years in Portugal.
Updated June 14, 2018