ADLER, Russia — If you’re a sick, twisted sort, an American or by chance both, the Spanish kerfuffle Wednesday in Russia can call to mind one parallel:
Julen Lopetegui is in the role of Bill Frieder.
Luis Rubiales is in the role of Bo Schembechler.
Fernando Hierro is in the role of Steve Fisher.
That’s even though the two cases 29 years apart are so wackily unrelated, and even though they occurred in two sports of considerable dissimilarity, and even though probably all but one of the 49 million Spaniards probably never heard of Frieder, Schembechler or Fisher because they worked in the weird, isolated human behavior of American college sports. (The lone exception would be the eternal Spanish defender Gerard Pique, who tweeted about it Wednesday, flashing a sports knowledge so esoteric as to be, of course, sick and twisted.)
On Tuesday, Lopetegui, who was supposed to manage Spain in the World Cup, became the new manager at Real Madrid, to begin after the World Cup. On a Tuesday in mid-March 1989, Frieder, who was supposed to coach Michigan in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, became the new coach at Arizona State, to begin after the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
On Wednesday, Rubiales, who had become president of Spain’s soccer federation only on May 17, went ahead and terminated Lopetegui, two days before the World Cup. On that Wednesday nearly 30 years ago, Schembechler, who had become Michigan’s athletic director only the previous April after coaching American football legendarily at the school, went ahead and announced that Frieder could go ahead and resign, two days before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
On Friday, Spain, certainly among the favorites in this 21st utmost planetary gathering, will begin play against Portugal here in the greater Sochi area with Hierro, the 50-year-old former Spain star defender-midfielder and sporting director, as its manager, bringing his light managerial experience of one year at second-division club Real Oviedo. On that Friday in March 1989, Michigan, certainly considered a top-10 type for most of that season, began play against Xavier in Atlanta as a No. 3 seed with the 43-year-old Michigan assistant Fisher as coach, bringing his light head-coaching experience from the 1970s at Rich East High School in Illinois.
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Schembechler, with glorious crankiness, made that deathless quotation: “I don’t want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team. A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.”
Rubiales, without crankiness, apparently had gone startled and sleepless and said, “I found out five minutes before,” a reference to how much time he had between learning anything about Lopetegui negotiating with Real Madrid, and Real Madrid making the arrogant, stupidly timed announcement that it had hired Lopetegui.
If Rubiales had said, “A Spain man is going to coach Spain,” that would have been something, but also less poetic, with fewer syllables.
Michigan won that national title, of course, scoring 80 points or more each game as it beat Xavier, South Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois and Seton Hall. Glen Rice scored 43,000 points in the six games, if memory serves. Similarly, while so very dissimilarly, Spain becomes even more alluring than usual here. It becomes a sort of experiment. It stands as a test case for some of the big questions that transcend one sport and inform all:
How much do managers matter, anyway? Do they matter at certain times more than others, and with some people more than others? Might it help, having a fresh voice? Might such a loud and unexpected fate, which tends to garner the description of “crisis,” galvanize a team in some sort of mysterious way? Might some kind of unusual, helpful concentration kick in? For what length of while could a team such as Spain, rich in veterans of multiple World Cups such as Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Pique, function even without a manager?
Of course, managing a national team is a near-eccentric endeavor in which the manager sees the players for swatches of time only now and then. There’s less chance of tiring of him. Having taken the towering Spain job July 21, 2016, Lopetegui had managed the team for 20 matches: 10 World Cup qualifiers and 10 friendlies. He had lost precisely zero of those matches, with six draws. In the World Cup qualifiers, he had won nine and drawn one (with Italy). He had mastered the likes of Albania, Liechtenstein, Israel, Macedonia and Italy, which his team had beaten, 3-0, in the other qualifying fracas.
Frieder, operating in an entirely different system, had gone 24-7 that season. Fisher started off 6-0 and kept the job for eight more seasons. If Hierro starts off 6-0, Spain will have reached the final in Moscow on July 15. It will have rebounded from its 2014 World Cup sag to regain its 2010 World Cup bossiness. It will have overcome its strange moment of June 13, which also happened to be the four-year anniversary of its 5-1 drubbing by the Netherlands in Salvador, Brazil, which opened Spain’s 2014 World Cup with such non-promise.
Spain will be ecstatic, even if it might choose to scrub June 13 from its calendars.
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