After Real Madrid failure, Lopetegui is on a mission with Sevilla
In the tiny northern town of Asteasu, population 1,533, everyone knows José Antonio. Approaching 90 now and walking with a cane, he lives in the same large house he has occupied for over half a century. In one room is a shelf lined with a series of large, different shaped stones, rocks and blocks, arranged as if they were priceless antiques. In a way, they are. Ornate and imposing, each telling their own story, these are the stones he was famous for lifting, crowds gathering to watch.
José Antonio, known competitively as Agerre II, wanted to be a pelotari when he was growing up: a Basque pelota player. Instead, he became a harrijsotzaile: a champion Basque stone-lifter, a man who once raised a 100-kilo weight 22 times in a minute to set a record. No one was better than him, in Euskadi or anywhere.
There is a black and white photo of him when he was young, his gigantic biceps straining as he lifts his two small daughters, Miriam and Idoia, in his palms, as if he has little girls for hands. At his side stands his son. Look closely and you might just recognise him. Like his dad, he became an athlete and an even more well-known one. He became a football player and then a manager, and in the past year he has held the two most important coaching jobs in Spain: the national team and Real Madrid.
Actually, make that three of the most important jobs in Spanish football in less than 12 months because this summer, Jose Antonio's son Julen has just become manager of Sevilla, too. It's a big deal there: This is the club whose president once claimed to be the second-most important man in the city, after the Pope, and everywhere else too. Over the past 15 years, no club outside the top two in Spain has been more successful than Sevilla.
It's also a big deal for Julen Lopetegui, an opportunity. An obligation, as well.
Lopetegui had other offers -- there were two in England for a start, plus interest from across the city at Real Betis -- but this is Sevilla, a huge club with noisy, passionate fans, a deep sense of self, and proud. Very proud. It is a new-old Sevilla too, led by the returning of the sporting director Monchi, the man who was the artifice of the greatest era in their history -- a figure dead set on returning rather like their new manager.
Both Monchi and Lopetegui are former goalkeepers, men who have dedicated their lives to the game even after playing. Monchi has a club to rebuild -- few sporting directors can have dominated their clubs quite like him, controlling every aspect of the club -- and Lopetegui has a team to rebuild. He has a reputation to rebuild, too.
Whether Lopetegui likes it or not, everything that happened last summer remains and probably always will. There may never have been a football story quite like it: The news broke as reporters arrived in Russia, a statement read as they stood there at Sheremetyevo airport. On the day before the World Cup began, Real Madrid announced they had signed Spain's manager. He was supposed to take over once the tournament was done, but he didn't get that far. The following morning, Lopetegui was sacked.
It was a year ago on June 12, but the passage of time does not diminish it and nor does anyone forget. It may even seem more extraordinary having taken a step back. Spain sacked their manager the day the World Cup began. Put like that, it's still quite something. It doesn't go away, either; instead, it pursues him. Worse, the culpability is shifted. He gets blamed.
Witness his first day in Seville. When Lopetegui was presented as Sevilla manager, a journalist asked about the way he had abandoned the national team. His response was sharp. "I didn't leave: I was sacked. They took my greatest dream away from me. I didn't abandon anything," he said.
"A lie doesn't become true because it gets repeated a thousand times."
Lopetegui was right, and the reaction showed that the repetition stings. The whole episode does: Lopetegui, not unreasonably, says he thinks some had the federation president's attention, convincing him to sack his coach when it wasn't necessary. He would be entitled to believe that not only did the Spain FA chief, Luis Rubiales, take away Lopetegui's greatest dream; he took away Spain's, too. They had qualified brilliantly, confidence and growing with every game, but it vanished overnight. The night Spain were knocked out, Dani Caravajal put it simply: "They took our leader from us."
Lopetegui suggested at his presentation in Seville that this would be the last time he talked about Spain, that he would rather look forward and not look back, but he knows it probably won't be. He knows it will come up again. He knows that his record at Madrid will too, and Madrid aren't exactly the favoured club of Sevilla fans. That stick is ready to beat him with if things don't go well. A reason for the doubts to deepen. He must escape that. Maybe it can motivate him.
He knew that some redemption for Russia could have been found at the Bernabeu, but it wasn't. Patience for his struggles was short. So were the goals and he was sacked after 138 days in charge. All that, for this?! Perhaps Sevilla can see him through but the pressure is high.
Ultimately, the pressure could be a good thing. Certainly, that was Monchi's idea. For some, going to Sevilla after Spain and Madrid might be a climb-down but not for Lopetegui. With him, it wouldn't have been in any case -- he's aware of the size of this club -- and still less so after everything that happened.
Monchi has handed Lopetegui a three-year contract, longer than he has ever given his coach, and is paying him well. He believes in Lopetegui's approach, his willingness to bring young players through, his vision, his flexibility and his meticulousness. But there is another reason. "Above all, he needs to triumph," Monchi said at Lopetegui's presentation. There's something in that; the sense of redemption, desire, mission, need. That could be beneficial.
But success won't be easy and it will take more than desire. At Madrid, few fully appreciated the scale of the reconstruction Lopetegui took on and did not have the patience to see through, nor the weakness of the materials with which he had to work. Perhaps this summer, they see it. At Sevilla too, the task will be a gigantic one. Whether they see that yet is not clear. It is a message that could be usefully heard.
While he was at Madrid, Lopetegui's dad offered up the simplest but perhaps most assured analysis, pointing at the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. "They took 50 goals off him," José Antonio said. At Sevilla, it is likely that something similar will happen, albeit for different reasons. Pablo Sarabia's buyout clause is €18m while Wissam Ben Yedder's is €30m. It is an open invitation for clubs with money and in all likelihood, both will depart. They got 53 goals between them last season.
Nor will that be the end of it. Internally, there is a belief that this might be the busiest summer anyone has ever seen in Seville, the hottest city in Europe, or, indeed, anywhere else. Both departures and arrivals are likely to head into double figures as Monchi and Lopetegui seek to restructure the club. Then all those new pieces will have to put together. They would like 90% of the squad to be sorted swiftly -- as soon as possible after they return on July 4 -- but they know that's unlikely. Lopetegui has a voice and will be heard on transfers, rather more than he was at the Bernabéu, but he does not yet know what Monchi will hand over to him.
It all makes the task even harder. It will take work and it will take a while, patience in a place where expectations are high, and there are no guarantees. But there is application and qualification with Lopetegui, and advice available from a wise old head and a strong, safe pair of hands up in Asteasu.
"I called my dad and he said, 'You're going south, you'd better get air conditioning,'" Lopetegui said.