Julen Lopetegui, who led Spain’s youth teams to international success, was tasked Thursday with breathing new life into La Roja after they crashed out of the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.
The Spanish football federation announced the 49-year-old former goalkeeper would take over from Vicente del Bosque as manager of the national team, weeks after the latter resigned following Spain’s defeat to Italy in the last 16 of Euro 2016.
Del Bosque had led Spain to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 titles, after taking over from Euro 2008-winning coach Luis Aragones.
But the second half of his stint was disappointing, with the 2-0 defeat to Italy following a shock group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and he was criticised for not having given the newer generation a chance.
Thanks to his success with Spain’s under-19s and under-21s, Lopetegui has long been a favourite of Spanish FA head Angel Maria Villar, who made the appointment before concentrating on his bid to replace Michel Platini as UEFA chief.
He is reported to have overcome stiff competition from veteran former Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao coach Joaquin Caparros for the post.
Del Bosque wished Lopetegui well on Thursday.
“He’s a man with experience, well trained and with huge enthusiasm and lots of energy,” he told Radio Marca.
“He will know how to manage (the team) like he has done brilliantly in the younger age categories.”
– Highs and lows –
Lopetegui has over his career achieved varying degrees of success on the pitch and as a coach.
His spells as a goalkeeper at Real Madrid and Barcelona saw him spend much of his time on the bench.
But he was highly successful at smaller club Logrones from 1991 to 1994 at a time when the team was in the country’s first division.
Retiring from professional football in 2002, he became coach of Madrid-based Rayo Vallecano — a team in Spain’s second tier — where he had last played before retiring.
He then moved on to Real Madrid where he coached the club’s Castilla reserve team, the same post that Zinedine Zidane held before moving on to managing the first team.
But Lopetegui, who hails from the northern Basque country, really made his name when he coached the national team’s under-19s, under-20s and under-21s from 2010 to 2014.
He led his teams to victory in the 2012 European Under-19 Championship and a year later in the Under-21 European Championship which featured David de Gea, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata, all of whom were at Euro 2016.
– ‘Nice challenge ahead’ –
Fresh from that success, he took over Porto in 2014 and led them to the quarter-finals of the 2014/15 Champions League.
A famous 3-1 win over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the first leg of the quarter-final was quickly forgotten as Bayern bounced back to thrash Lopetegui’s men 6-1 in the second leg, to progress to the last four.
Porto also finished runners-up to rivals Benfica in the Portuguese league in his first season in charge.
Lopetegui signed Iker Casillas from Real Madrid in July 2015, but that did little to help and he was sacked in January with Porto languishing in third behind Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, having been knocked out at the group stages of the Champions League.
Still, influential sports daily Marca said his intimate knowledge of the workings of the national team was “ideal” as Spain seek to re-emerge from a dark patch after failures in Brazil and France.
“Lopetegui has a nice challenge ahead,” it wrote.
“His adventure starts in September with the friendly between La Roja and Belgium.”
In the meantime, Lopetegui will hold a press conference near Madrid later Thursday at 1630 GMT. – Agence France-Presse