The beginning had been warm and emotional. The end, though expected, was cold and brutal.
Julen Lopetegui’s unveiling as Real Madrid manager had been a poignant affair. “If yesterday was the saddest day of my life, since the death of my mother,” he said, choking back tears, “then today is the happiest”. Madrid and their president, Florentino Perez, put their arm around him — figuratively and literally — welcoming Lopetegui ‘home’.
The statement that communicated his dismissal, just 137 days later, was stark. Haughtily outlining the quality of the playing squad in contrast to results on the field, before signing off with the most perfunctory of best wishes to Lopetegui and his staff.
The beginning had come barely 24 hours after one of the most dramatic chapters in Spanish football history. Livid with the handling of his appointment as the future Real Madrid manager, Luis Rubiales, the Federation’s president sacked Lopetegui as head coach of the Spanish national team on the eve of the 2018 World Cup.
The end came the day after a humiliating 5-1 defeat to a Messi-less Barcelona in Camp Nou sank Madrid to ninth in the table, seven points behind their greatest rivals.
Ten league games had separated the two.
For the general public, it was an episode consigned to football trivia forever. For Lopetegui it was crushing, having spent years climbing steadily to the summit of the management world only to come tumbling down. He had lost two of the most prestigious jobs in Spanish football in a matter of months.
In the midst of it all, there had been some support. On the morning of that fateful clásico, El Mundo carried an interview with an elderly, broad-shouldered gentleman in the town of Asteasu, a small town in the region of Gipuzkoa — around 30 minutes from San Sebastián.
“They lack a goal scorer. They haven’t brought in anybody. They have taken away 50 goals from him,” he argued, referring to a Portuguese forward who had left the club in the summer.
More personally, he vouched for the character of the embattled head coach. “He has always been strong.”
And if anyone knew anything about strength, it was Julen Lopetegui’s father.
Lopetegui was born and raised in that same Basque town, where he had somewhat of a unique upbringing — certainly by footballing standards.
His father, José Antonio, was widely known as Aguerre II* — a formidable, record-setting levantador de piedra, a stone lifter competing in a sport popular throughout the rural Basque country.
Aguerre had modernised the traditional training methods used in the sport at the time, incorporating a more rounded level of general fitness. Around the end of the 1960s, he had become a star turn, once lifting a 100kg cylinder 22 times in one minute. So widespread was his reputation, that when General Franco decided it was a good time to ‘manufacture’ a heavyweight boxing champion, he and his coterie naturally looked to the Basque country — the home of the legendary Paulino Uzcudun — and to Aguerre.
Uzcudun had fought the toughest heavyweights of the 1920s and 1930s, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling included, and was himself a convert from a traditional Basque sport — that of wood-chopping. Predictably enough he carried the nickname of the Basque Woodchopper throughout a 69 fight career.
With his strength and enlightened training methods, Aguerre was identified as the ideal candidate to convert to the noble art and an intermediary, Miguel Almazor, was dispatched to persuade him of the fame and fortune that would await. Unconvinced, Aguerre refused the offer, preferring the life he had in Asteasu with wife Julita and young sons Joxean and Julen.
Almazor quickly moved on to his second option, another stone lifter, 20km away. José Manuel Ibar took up the opportunity and was swiftly converted from rural Basque sportsman into the pseudo superhero ‘Urtain’.
Urtain quickly rose to world level and for a few glorious years gave the regime the idol they craved — becoming the only ever Spaniard to appear on the cover of The Ring magazine. Ultimately, poor boxing fundamentals and a lack of genuine stamina caught up with him, and the losses arrived with frequency. Indebted and forgotten, Urtain died a tragic death before his 50th birthday.
Aguerre had chosen the quieter life in Asteasu. Although the quiet life was rather busy. The Lopetegui family has something of a talent for business and at that time had a hostel, a fleet of buses and a bustling local restaurant on the go. Aguerre somehow also found time to be the town’s mayor, and it was in that capacity he received a pair of journalists keen to chronicle a day in the life of the local legend. The famous photo that emerged from that report was that of Aguerre holding aloft his twin daughters Miriam and Idoia with a young Julen standing devotedly at his father’s side.
Despite his successes, Aguerre was at heart a frustrated pelotari, and in the Lopetegui household, the game of pelota was king — to the exclusion of football, a game in which Aguerre held scant interest. Julen would spend his mornings on the pelota court — practising the sport in which his father hoped he would play professionally — before slipping away in the afternoons to keep goal. While his brother, Joxean, became an influential personality in the pelota world (where he went by his father’s nickname), Julen was progressing through the youth ranks at Real Sociedad almost unnoticed by his own household.
It took until 1985 and an international youth tournament organised by la Real for Aguerre to first watch Julen play. Even then it was purely because the local Basque TV station, ETB, had chosen to broadcast the final. Julen put in an outstanding performance as la Real lost 0-2 to Real Madrid. Aguerre finally realised his son’s goalkeeping talent just as Real Madrid reached the same conclusion, whisking him away to the capital.
Lopetegui’s playing career was, in some ways, portentous of his coaching career — tantalisingly close to hitting the heights. A story of opportunities slipping away at crucial moments.
After a few seasons developing at Real Madrid in the B team, Castilla, he was unable to dislodge Paco Buyo in the first team. He moved on to Logroñes where three impressive seasons earned him a ticket to USA ’94 as the third-choice goalkeeper in the Spanish squad.
That recognition earned him another shot at the big time, and he signed with Barcelona to compete for the departing Andoni Zubizaretta’s number one shirt. His rival for the job, Carles Busquets (father of Sergio), auditioned smoothly with a clean sheet in Zaragoza in the first-leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Lopetegui, however, fluffed his lines disastrously. In the second-leg at Camp Nou he conceded five before being sent off late in the game as Barça barely clung on to what should have been a commanding advantage. After three seasons as a back-up in Barcelona, he finished his playing career with a spell at Rayo Vallecano.
Rayo would be his first foray into management in 2003. Still, it would be a few years before Lopetegui made eye-catching progress within the Spanish Federation coaching set up, winning the UEFA u19 and u21 Championships. When the historic Vincente Del Bosque era finally came to an end, the Federation turned to Lopetegui. He guided the senior side smoothly through World Cup qualification and twenty games unbeaten before the events of those fateful few days in Moscow and the subsequent misadventure in Madrid.
Just as he had done throughout his playing career, Lopetegui dusted himself down once more, and this season he was back. Sevilla’s sporting director, Monchi, had returned from his spell in Rome to a club in transition and had chosen his fellow ex-goalkeeper to partner him in the rebuilding process.
In November, as the final whistle of the Seville derby finally blew, Lopetegui exploded with relief at his first signature win. “He wore a wild look in his eyes and punched the air with the kind of force that dislocates shoulders.” wrote Sid Lowe for The Guardian. That victory on the home turf of their bitter rivals, Real Betis, put Sevilla fourth and just a point behind the league’s leaders.
That evening as Lopetegui prowled the technical area of the Benito Villamarin, slightly bemulleted and in a black, hooded tracksuit, there was more than a hint of the boxer about him. A look that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a montage of Rocky Balboa’s opponents in a fictional 1980s heavyweight division.
The son of the man who could have been a contender was back on his feet once more.
*To avoid confusion after initial introduction, Julen Lopetegui’s father, José Antonio, is referred to as Aguerre — his widely known stone lifting nickname