How to Avoid an Early Exit, After an Early Exit, By Mapate Diop

Illustration by Michael Mankowski

By Mapate Diop

So you’ve been appointed the interim head coach of your national team the day before the start of the 2018 World Cup after the very talented colleague you’re replacing, who went undefeated as national team coach, including a plus-33 goal differential through qualification, and whose contract you had just extended for another two years as a gesture of goodwill, was fired for negotiating a move to manage one of the country’s two largest clubs, which has historically divided the national team, without informing you, your boss or anyone else in the federation, who found out because several players on the national team employed by that same club snitched to a teammate who doesn’t play for that club and forced the club to announce the appointment instead of waiting until after the tournament as is customary, despite pleas from the team’s captains, and to top it all off, your first match is against a neighboring country featuring one of the world’s best players and is currently the most important player for the same club. What do you do? I’d argue not a thing.

When Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales sacked Julen Lopetegui yesterday, it was clear he thought he had preserved the unity of the Spanish national team by taking a principled, professional stand:

“We wish him the best. He has done an excellent job in getting us to the tournament. But the federation cannot be left outside the negotiation of one of its employees, and find out just five minutes before a public announcement. If anybody wants to talk to one of our employees, they have to speak to us, too. That is basic, as this is the team of all Spaniards. The national team is the most important we have; the World Cup is the biggest of all.”

It would be natural for anyone to panic, especially the technical director and now caretaker manager Fernando Hierro. Years of planning and execution are out the window inside of a week. The federation president, himself only recently elected, responded to meddling by a key stakeholder with mixed incentives with more meddling. But Hierro should believe more than anyone that no team is better equipped to handle a stunt like this on the eve of a World Cup campaign. Sure, Spain are a little older and slower but if they’ve demonstrated anything in the last ten years, it’s that they retain perhaps the most crucial quality for success: they know who they are.

Brazil is more complete. France is more talented. Germany has a higher pedigree. But all three are under much greater pressure to deliver as favorites. With every decision of Messrs Tite, Deschamps and Löw being picked apart, it would help to play in a definitive style. Brazil have yet to really gameplan while France doesn’t even have a starting lineup. As current cup holders, Germany come closest to settled—however, group matches versus Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea all look like trap games, if you believe trap games exist. Negotiating three compact, energetic defenses looking to spring counterattacks calls for aggressive positional play and ball retention. Sound familiar?

According to the received wisdom about how best to approach tournaments—keeping clean sheets with an emphasis on isolating favorable matchups on the field and prudent tactical decisions late in games—Hierro is quite well positioned. They’ve got the best goalkeeper in the world in David De Gea. They’re also deep with gamebreakers like Marco Asensio, Lucas Vasquez, and Iago Aspas coming off the bench. And say what you will about Sergio Ramos or Diego Costa, but never doubt the lengths they’ll go to win.

Running a team during a club season is about managing context. Running a team during a tournament is about managing expectations. Perception versus perspective. Rubiales, in his tin-pot tyranny, is concerned about the former but it behooves Hierro to focus on the latter.

All they have to do play their game.

And play their game they did. Isco in particular looked right at home in the middle of the park. Historically, Portugal are slow starters in the group stages largely owing to the low quality shots they tend to create. But yesterday, probability and an uncharacteristic error from De Gea were all Cristiano Ronaldo needed to strike three times lucky and draw a result from the Spanish slot machine. Now, we have ourselves a World Cup.

 

 

Mapate is a reforming New Yorker who, despite living in the Midwest, still can’t keep his opinions to himself. He believes the game is most important least important thing and treats it with the credibility it deserves.