The Portugal superstar looks perfectly poised to take advantage of the chaos caused by Julen Lopetegui’s dismissal on the eve of the World Cup
“You’re a f***ing w****r and you can stick your World Cup up your arse!”
So said Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane to manager Mick McCarthy before walking out of the Republic of Ireland training camp on the eve of the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea.
As exits go, it was arguably the most divisive in World Cup history. As Keane’s team-mate Niall Quinn later wrote of what became known as ‘The Saipan Incident’, “It ultimately caused a huge controversy in Irish society.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Even the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) tried to broker a peace accord between Keane and McCarthy but it wasn’t to be.
Instead, the Irish nation effectively became embroiled in a sporting civil war over who was right and who was wrong.
Sixteen years on, Spain is just as divided. The country’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup were thrown into chaos by the decision to sack coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before their opening game, against Portugal in Sochi.
Flanked by new boss Fernando Hierro at Thursday’s pre-game press conference before a packed media room in the Fisht Stadium, Roja captain Sergio Ramos did his best to present a united front.
When he arrived, he was all smiles, happily agreeing to a photographer’s request to stand side by side with his fellow Real Madrid legend, a man he had grown up idolising.
Just over 20 minutes later, though, his mood had been adversely affected by the pessimistic environment in which he had found himself: “I’m going to leave this press conference now because it feels like a funeral in here when, in fact, tomorrow we’re going to play in the World Cup, which is a marvellous event.”
To put it mildly, this was not how Ramos had envisaged his first World Cup as Spain captain kicking off, amid chaos and controversy, and a plethora of questions over whether his squad had been split in two by Lopetegui’s dramatic dismissal.
Ramos, unsurprisingly, insisted that the players remained united. “I can say this clearly, there’s no division whatsoever,” he stated. “We all have our opinions, that’s only human. But personal feelings do not come into it. The goal is the same.
“Some of what has happened will make us feel a bit sad and players can have different opinions; that’s only human. But this an opportunity to make ourselves stronger.”
Reading between the lines, it was obvious that the sensational decision by Spanish Football Federation chief Luis Rubiales to fire Lopetegui for agreeing to take over at Real Madrid after the tournament has not gone down well with every player.
That is hardly a shock. Lopetegui had revived La Roja after a meek Euro 2016 exit. They were united and undefeated under the 51-year-old.
As Ramos pointed out, “Julen will be a part of what happens in this World Cup, regardless of what has happened.”
The fear now, of course, is that the whole affair has damaged Spain’s morale. Fernando Santos insisted earlier on Friday that Lopetegui’s dismissal had changed nothing. “Spain have been playing the same way for 10 years, so I’m not expecting any surprises,” the Portugal boss said.
However, there is no denying that Lopetegui’s sudden exit – and Real Madrid’s role in it – has altered the entire complexion of Spain’s campaign.
Considered the favourites by many after going unbeaten under Lopetegui, who took over after the tame Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Italy, there is now a huge question mark over how their squad will react, particularly with news by now having filtered through from Madrid that their former boss has described as his dismissal as “the saddest day of my life since the death of my mother”.
Going by Ramos’ statements – “some of what has happened makes us feel a bit down” – there is huge sympathy for Lopetegui.
In Spain, though, some believe that Rubiales was left with no option but to dismiss Lopetegui, believing that he disrespected the role of national team boss by agreeing to join Madrid just over a month after signing a contract extension with the RFFF.
However, others feel that Rubiales put personal pride before the national team. Many Madrid fans are also adamant that had Lopetegui been joining any other side than theirs, Rubiales would not have wielded the axe. Real president Florentino Perez insinuated as much in his remarkable press conference, one which has only solidified the perception that this is now the mother of all club-versus-country rows: Madrid versus Spain.
Of course, any dressing-room discord could be ruthlessly exploited on the pitch by Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most lethal finisher.
Despite their status as European champions, and the continued excellence of their captain, the Seleccao had not been expected to challenge Spain for top spot in Group B but now nobody knows what to expect from a side that will now be led by Hierro, whose only previous coaching experience was a short and unsuccessful spell in charge of Oviedo two years ago.
The former defender says that he does not plan to make any significant changes. “Much of the coaching staff is the same,” he pointed out. “So, not much is going to change in two days. You’re going to see the same Spain, a team that tries to be the protagonist in games.”
Nobody, though, is more adept at stealing the limelight than Ronaldo and, given the events of the past 48 hours, it would not be at all surprising to see him claim centre stage on Friday night.
As Ramos conceded, “To be honest, I’d rather have Cris on my team than against me.” Especially in circumstances such as these.
Ronaldo could well be the only victor from Spain’s civil war.