Football Features

Why Luis Enrique’s Spain return was clouded by accusations of disloyalty

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:31, 27 November 2019 | Updated: 13:43, 25 February 2020

Luis Enrique is manager of Spain and will be in charge when they take the field at Euro 2020.

At first glance, announcing that Spain‘s manager will be managing Spain seems to be a pretty obvious thing to say (well, not if they’re Julen Lopetegui). But the circumstances of Luis Enrique being in charge are more complicated than that, and shroud Spain‘s equivalent to the English FA in yet more drama.

While the Lopetegui saga was nonsense of their own making, the current “controversy” is not something they could really have avoided. Perhaps they could have handled it with a softer touch, but ultimately this was always going to be awkward.

The Backstory

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) knew they needed change after the debacle of the 2018 World Cup, where Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament (literally) and Spain got progressively worse under Fernando Hierro’s guidance before their final humiliation: elimination by hosts Russia. So they looked to the second-most successful Spanish coach active: Luis Enrique.

The former Barcelona boss had been out of football for a year but was a tremendous motivator. He wasn’t the best tactician in the world, but he was no dullard and could get a side fit and focused for big games as well as anyone. He also had the personality to control a team that was full of ego stemming from its own achievement (well alright just one ego, but Sergio Ramos is self-important enough for at least three people).

Tragedy

So Luis Enrique, nicknamed ‘Lucho’, took charge and for a while things were good. Then tragedy struck as the coach’s young daughter, Xana, was revealed to have osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. This, understandably, left him in no state to manage a football team, and his assistant Robert Moreno took charge of three Spain games in spring 2019 as the coach was with his daughter.

As things got worse, Luis Enrique resigned from his post as Spain boss to spend time with his family. Moreno was then appointed his replacement to ensure continuity of the “project” they had started. Here it’s worth noting that Moreno said: “if Luis wants to return one day I would be delighted to step aside and work with him.”

Moreno’s Reign

Moreno had always affirmed his loyalty to Luis Enrique as head coach, and this was a touching gesture given that Luis Enrique was deep in mourning Xana, who tragically passed away in late August 2019. There was no reason to think Moreno was being disingenuous with his words. After all, he had worked with Luis Enrique at Roma, Celta Vigo and Barcelona. “I consider Luis a friend and friendship comes ahead of everything,” Moreno said.

Moreno’s era in charge was impressive. Under his guidance, Spain picked up seven wins in nine games – keeping five clean sheets along the way. Culminating in the destruction of Malta and Romania in successive home games by an aggregate score of 12-0 to close out 2019.

That success must have been a delight for Moreno. He got to manage Spain, his dream job, and he did a fantastic job at it as well. Spain were slick under him, and they were dogged too. Zero defeats is impressive, especially the way they clawed a draw away to Sweden in stoppage time (just days after surrendering a lead in stoppage time against Norway too).

The Return

Despite Moreno’s success, the RFEF would not confirm his future long-term. Moreno was seeking an extension to his deal (which ran until the end of Euro 2020) and they weren’t keen to grant one. This led to speculation about what was going on and sure enough, after the win against Romania, it was announced that Moreno would not be continuing as Spain boss. He was seen leaving the stadium in floods of tears and none of the players spoke to the media either. The next day it was confirmed that Luis Enrique was to return.

So why the tears? Luis Enrique clarified much with his press conference.

The Reasons

Essentially, he and Moreno had a meeting in September 2019. And at that meeting, according to Luis Enrique, it was made clear he was ready to return to management, to the Spanish team. Despite once stating he’d step aside, Moreno is said to have communicated that he’d like to manage the side at Euro 2020, as he had managed them in all but one of the qualification matches, and then he’d be happy to return to be Luis Enrique’s assistant.

“I understood it, because he is ambitious and this is a good thing,” said Luis Enrique about Moreno. “But he is disloyal and that is a major defect for me. I don’t want people like that on my staff.”

That may seem harsh from Luis Enrique. But from his point-of-view, Moreno was only ever holding his spot for him. Their ideas were the same, this wasn’t a new project; it was just a case of his assistant and friend making sure Spain kept moving while Lucho himself dealt with tragic personal circumstances. And after going through that hell he was ready to return and found Moreno wanted to stay in charge, despite saying previously that he would happily step aside should Luis Enrique ever return.

To him, yeah, that’s ‘disloyal’. And if you can’t trust someone, you can’t work with them. After that meeting, Luis Enrique met with the RFEF in October. There he said: “I told them there was no commitment to me, nothing that had to be respected,” which is nice, but of course they felt they had to respect the way things were and made plans to reinstate him. Which they did after qualification was secured.

The situation is very murky, but Luis Enrique says he does not blame Moreno. Nor does he pass the responsibility over to the RFEF. which would be an easy move as no one really likes president Luis Rubiales. “The only person responsible for Robert Moreno not being in my staff now is me, nobody else,” said the Spaniard. It sounds like a man taking ownership of a terrible situation. A man honest enough to admit that “I’m not the good guy in the movie, but I’m not the villain either.”

It’s a shame if Moreno’s ambition compromised a promise he made to his friend, and it’s a shame that Luis Enrique had to make his friend choose between ambition and loyalty. But mostly it’s a shame that a young girl died of cancer.

In the end, the only certain thing is that Luis Enrique is the manager of Spain and will be in charge when they take the field at Euro 2020.

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