Spain, Hierro preach message of calm and continuity after chaotic week
SOCHI, RUSSIA -- Spain captain Sergio Ramos and his freshly installed coach, Fernando Hierro, looked like they'd rather have been in the dentist's chair than facing questions ahead of Friday's Group B opener against Portugal.
"I think I'd like this to be over now..." joked Ramos at the end. "Come on, it feels like a funeral. It's a World Cup. We're supposed to be happy."
Yet there was no escaping the heavy, suffocating mood and not just because they faced the press in an overstuffed room in the bowels of Sochi's Olympic Stadium. Other than a few numbingly generic thoughts about facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal ("I hope he doesn't have one of his best days," Ramos said, and "every game is like a final," Hierro mused) and a riposte to those who criticized him for his tackle on Mohamed Salah in the Champions League final ("My conscience is very clear, I sleep very well at night. ... Maybe some people say certain things to gain popularity"), the dominant theme was Julen Lopetegui, dismissed some 30 hours earlier, as well as trying to figure out who knew what and when they knew it.
"As a captain, sometimes you are a bit more informed of what is going on," said Ramos when asked directly if he knew about Lopetegui's talks with Real Madrid, of which the Spanish FA claimed they had no knowledge. "But the sooner we leave this in the past, the better."
"The important thing is that there is no division in the camp," he added. "We can have different opinions, but we are a solid unit. For me personally, it was a sensitive time, but problems are also opportunities to grow."
The opportunity now falls to Hierro, who went out of his way to reiterate that very little was going to change.
"We are going to continue down the path we've followed these past two years," he said. "We have a very clear job in mind. Most of the staff is the same, the principles are the same, we will be exactly what you've seen before.
"We won't deviate an iota from our footballing concepts."
How well Hierro can do that will likely determine how far Spain go. His own pedigree as a manager, limited to one Segunda Division campaign at Oviedo, is not particularly relevant here. Far more important was his role as sporting director of the Spanish FA during the four years between 2007 and 2011 when they won the European Championships and the World Cup under two very different managers, Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque.
Hierro's role back then was part scout, part man-manager, part motivator and part problem-solver. And while a guy with his playing career (five league titles and three Champions League crowns with Real Madrid, 89 caps and an incredible 29 goals for Spain despite playing center-back and central midfield) was always going to command respect, you're only going to stick around as resident icon for so long if you don't produce.
He was also Carlo Ancelotti's assistant at Real Madrid when they won their 10th Champions League, and after the spell at Oviedo, Hierro was recalled to the national side as sporting director. While his own personal footballing philosophy may be different from Lopetegui's, which is a function of the managers he's worked with over the years both as a player and as a sporting director, you tend to believe him when he says that things "won't change much" for Spain. Not just because there simply isn't time to do so, but because he was a key part of what Lopetegui built (especially in the final few months) and some of the big selection decisions that were made, like leaving out Alvaro Morata and Cesc Fabregas.
In short, it feels like plug-and-play situation.
"[Lopetegui] will be a part of whatever happens at this World Cup," said Ramos.
How big a part, and how well Hierro balances his legacy with the qualities and charisma that he brings to the job, will help determine how far Spain go.
Either way, said Ramos, if Spain come up short "none of this can be an excuse."
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.