All Julen Lopetegui had to do was stay put.
He was at the helm of one of the world's best and most cohesive national team units entering the World Cup. Spain was back to its sensational ways and hadn't lost in 20 matches (14-0-6) under its manager, who was finding the international game to jive quite well with his methods. Spain was 6/1 to win it all in Russia, third-best in the field. Life was good, and life was straightforward.
Then came the great temptress.
Real Madrid is as alluring and cutthroat a managerial job as there is in the world. Win trophies there, and you're a legend forever. Lose a couple games in a row, and you're firmly on the hotseat. There is no in between. Even as Zinedine Zidane was en route to winning a third straight Champions League title, calls for his firing followed into the spring. Such is life at the Bernabeu.
Lopetegui bet on himself to succeed there, which is admirable. It's natural to be confident in oneself and to pouce at opportunity. But he underestimated what leaving the Spanish federation out of his plans would mean for his immediate future. Spain's FA president Luis Rubiales, sick of Real Madrid acting like the puppetmaster, rashly fired Lopetegui–who a month earlier had agreed to a new contract through 2020–on the eve of the World Cup and two days before Spain's opener vs. Portugal. Out went Lopetegui, in came the ill-prepared Fernando Hierro, and the rest is history. Spain limped out in the round of 16 in a penalty shootout vs. host Russia. But at least there was Real Madrid.
Lopetegui had called his Spain firing the "saddest day of my life" since the death of his mother, and he followed by calling his Real Madrid hiring, on a three-year contract, the "happiest day of my life." What he'll call Monday's firing is anybody's guess, but if there's a word to describe it, it's "inevitable."
Real Madrid never properly replaced Cristiano Ronaldo, a star who covered so many of Real's issues with his timely abundance of goals. Real is still stacked on paper, that much is true, but it's little surprise that the club, littered with stars coming off a long and draining summer, embarked on a 481-minute goalless drought without a go-to option rising to the occasion. For all its talent, the squad needed a replenishing that went beyond shelling out for a goalkeeper that wasn't really a priority area.
The club has stumbled to a 4-4-2 mark in La Liga and sits in ninth place, winless in its last five matches. In the Champions League, it–albeit very shorthanded–lost at CSKA Moscow before recovering to beat Viktoria Plzen at home, if not convincingly. This is not the Real Madrid we've come to know, and it's certainly not the one president Florentino Perez expects to see.
The final straw, as always seemed would be the case, was El Clasico. Lose narrowly or in a controversial manner, and perhaps the outcome is different. Lose 5-1 in a game in which Lionel Messi is not playing, and there's one inevitable resolution waiting for you.
It's too early to officially rule Real Madrid out of La Liga's race yet, and perhaps Santiago Solari, the interim manager who makes the leap from Real Madrid Castilla, will tap into the club's identity, light a fire and restore the pulse. But sitting seven points behind a Barcelona team that tends not to lose domestically all that often is a recipe for yet another failure in the league. Halfway through the Champions League's opening stage, Real Madrid sits atop its group table, tied with Roma on points and with a date in the Italian capital set for later next month. Its run there is salvageable, though the outlook without the lethal qualities of a Ronaldo-type in the attack limits the prospects of a fourth straight trophy lift.
One manager. Two prominent teams. Zero winners. That is the 138-day legacy left behind by Julen Lopetegui and his choice.
Oddly enough, the one tangential winner in all of this is Luis Enrique. The ex-Barcelona coach was the direct beneficiary of Lopetegui's actions, ending his coaching hiatus to step in for his country after the World Cup fiasco. He now oversees a Spanish national team that is buzzing–save for a surprise UEFA Nations League loss in England–like Lopetegui's was supposed to. Spain is still favored to win its Nations League group and reach next summer's semifinals, and it will enter Euro 2020 as one of the favorites to topple World Cup champion France.
He'll have the opportunity to live out the path to success that Lopetegui foolishly passed up.