The day after turning 50, Julen Lopetegui admitted to having slept little and to feeling butterflies in his stomach. But it was not the landmark birthday that had disturbed his sleep and provoked his anxiety, it was his imminent first match as Spain’s senior coach.
“Feeling a few nerves is necessary and positive. That tension is a good thing, it’s a sign that you’re doing something you like, that you’re passionate about and about which you have a great sense of responsibility and respect for,” he said, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com at the end of his first matchweek with La Roja. “If there came a time when we didn’t get nervous, that would be worrying, as it’d mean we didn’t care as much.”
Results could barely have gone better, however, with an impressive 2-0 friendly win over Belgium followed by an 8-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein to kick off Spain’s European Zone qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
“We’re pleased about the wins but, more than anything else, we’re happy about the response we’ve seen from the players, the behaviour and commitment they’ve shown, and their determination to take on board all the ideas that we’ve tried to get across to them over these two games,” underlined Vicente del Bosque’s successor. “We haven’t made any drastic changes, but every coach has his own way of working.”
So, did these two performances already manage to reflect the style of play Lopetegui wants from his team? “We want a Spain side that is able to draw the best it has out of the players at its disposal. One that’s able to take the initiative in games, which is part of our footballing make-up, while also being able to respond to situations that could arise at any given time.
“There’s a world of difference from game to game, and the demands on you are different too,” added the former FC Porto supremo. “We expect the team to be capable of meeting every challenge, and that the players are able to come up with their own answers when difficulties arrive. I’m certain that in that area the team will respond positively, rise to the challenge and add a lot more strings to their bow.”
On the back of his experiences with Spain’s U-20 squad, who he guided to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cups at Colombia 2011 and Turkey 2013, the U-21s – whom he led to the European title in 2013, and the U-19s, with whom he also tasted continental glory (2012), Lopetegui knows how it feels to win with La Selección. However, he also knows the pressure involved. “You only get short time periods to work, so you have work more intensively on your priority areas,” he said. “But given the attitude and professionalism shown by the players, everything will be that much easier.”
Next up for the new coach will be keeping tabs on his eligible players, overseeing the work done with the country’s youth national teams, analysing opponents and thoroughly preparing the training programme for La Roja’s next get-together in October.
Pelota vasca and cycling
“It’s not easy to disconnect from football,” admitted the former Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, Logrones, FC Barcelona and Rayo Vallecano keeper, who tries to do so by spending time with his family. “They support and encourage me, but they don’t stay silent when they see something they don’t like. They always say so affectionately of course,” he added with a smile, of his two sons and one daughter, all of whom are football fans and follow Real Sociedad, if in part because their dad “gave them no choice”!
Not that Julen himself was exactly faith aboaful to family tradition, with Lopetegui coming from a long line of harrijasotzailes (rock-lifters), a very popular sport in his native Basque country and still practised using huge weights of various shapes, sizes and materials. But Lopetegui’s father, who juggled competitions with running his own grill house, dreamed of his children pursuing a different path.
And so they did, with both immersing themselves in another local sporting tradition, la pelota vasca, with brother Joxean becoming a reputed pelotari. Julen, though, was also drawn strongly to football, despite taking a while to firmly commit to a career between the sticks.
His experience in pelota vasca contributed to Lopetegui having a characteristic keeping style and, in the end, the beautiful game won the day. “The larger ball had more of a lure for me,” said the former custodian, who travelled with Spain to USA 1994. But though he was selected for La Selección’s squad on multiple occasions, he only ever won one cap, Spain legend and fellow Basque Andoni Zubizarreta blocking his path for years.
“They’re the same, footballers who are passionate about what they do and who feel fortunate to have the chance to represent their country,” said Lopetegui, when quizzed if there are differences between the Spain dressing room in his playing days and now.
Yet before he enters that dressing room again with his Roja charges, he is sure to find time for another of his hobbies: cycling. “Ah yes, that’s something that helps me switch off. I grab the bike and do one of the Tour de France hill climbs, the mountain stages are what I most enjoy,” he revealed, but would he be willing to race against one of his colleagues from that USA 1994 adventure? “No, I’m sure Luis Enrique would beat me. He’s much better trained than I am,” he said, of the current Barça head coach and fellow cycling aficionado.
The next footballing stage he will be tackling will be on Italian soil, when Spain face Giampiero Ventura’s Italy on 6 October. The Nazionale are, on paper, the Spaniards’ biggest threat in Group G of European Zone qualifying, which is also made up of Albania, FYR Macedonia, Israel and the aforementioned Liechtenstein.
“You have to give every opponent the importance they deserve,” concluded Lopetegui, refusing to hand greater significance to a clash between the 2010 and 2006 world champions. “Every match matters, and we’ll have to work hard to move forward and get where we want to go. The road will be long and tough.”