MADRID, Spain - Julen Lopetegui said Thursday that being sacked as Spain coach was the "saddest day" of his life since the death of his mother and defended his move to Real Madrid, saying it was done in an "absolutely honest way".
Spain's World Cup preparations were thrown into turmoil on Wednesday as the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) sacked Lopetegui after Real Madrid confirmed he would take over at the Bernabeu for the next three seasons. Spain players reportedly resisted his sacking, which came as Spain are due to face European champions Portugal in Sochi on Friday before taking on Iran and Morocco in Group B at the World Cup.
Lopetegui said he wished federation chief Luis Rubiales "had handled things in another way" as he was officially unveiled as Real's new coach at the club's Santiago Bernabeu stadium. "Yesterday was the saddest day of my life since the death of my mother. But today is the happiest day of my life," Lopetegui said as he fought back tears. "We are convinced that we acted in an absolutely honest and clear way."
Rubiales said the federation was informed of Lopetegui's move just "five minutes" before Real released its press statement announcing his arrival. But Real Madrid president Florentino Perez called the Spanish football federation's reaction to the club's signing of Lopetegui "disproportionate, unfair and without precedent in the world of football in similar cases".
Perez also lashed out at what he called "an absurd reaction of misplaced pride" on the part of Rubiales, and said the club had issued the press statement as an "act of transparence" and to avoid the news from leaking out. The federation named Fernando Hierro, 50, as an emergency replacement at the World Cup despite having only one season's managerial experience in the Spanish second division with Real Oviedo. He was popular among the players as the federation's sporting director between 2007 and 2011, and returned to that role in November of last year.
There were fears Lopetegui's appointment by the European champions could open up old divisions between the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions in the Spain World Cup squad. But Spain captain Sergio Ramos said there were no divisions following the decision to let go of Lopetegui, under whom the 2010 World Cup winners had been unbeaten in two years.
"There are no cracks. We are all individuals and we all think differently, but the collective idea is the same -- we are here to go for the World Cup," said Ramos, who will play under Lopetegui at club level next season. "For me, personally, it was a more delicate moment but I can assure you that these problems provide an opportunity to grow." Ramos also urged Spain to put the drama of the past 48 hours behind them as they look to focus on their World Cup opener against Portugal in Sochi on Friday.
Hierro, himself a former Real captain, said the national team did not have time to "feel sorry" for itself. "The objective is to fight for a World Cup. The players have been working towards this for two years. I've told the players that we have a wonderful, exciting challenge and we can't let this be an excuse to distract us from our dream," he added.