June 24, 2018 / 10:09 AM / 3 months ago

Lopetegui shadow hangs over Spain ahead of Morocco game

KRASNODAR (Reuters) - The shadow of the dramatic sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup still hung over Spain as they set off for their final Group B game against Morocco in Kaliningrad after midfielder Saul Niguez openly criticised the decision.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Spain Training - Kazan Arena, Kazan, Russia - June 19, 2018 General view during training REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The common line from Spain’s players since Lopetegui was sacked by Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales for negotiating a move to Real Madrid behind his back was that they have accepted the move, while admitting it was far from ideal for their campaign.

Soccer Football - Real Madrid present new coach Julen Lopetegui - Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain - June 14, 2018 New Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui during the presentation REUTERS/Juan Medina

But Saul, who has known Lopetegui since he was his coach in the Spain under-19 team, broke ranks in an interview with Spanish state television on Saturday, saying the players should have been given a say in the seismic decision.

“It was surprising and I think that even though there were motives and reasons behind the decision, the players had no say in it and it was not the right time,” Saul said.

“Julen deserved to stay in charge after two years of preparing for the World Cup with us. Of course it has affected us, two days before (the tournament started) and they change your coach, it has really affected us. But we have tried to stay strong.”

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group B - Iran vs Spain - Kazan Arena, Kazan, Russia - June 20, 2018 Spain's Saul Niguez before the match REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Interim coach Fernando Hierro, who before the tournament was working as the team’s sporting director, said he had no problem with Saul’s comments.

“It’s logical, healthy, natural and what everyone is thinking,” Hierro said in an interview with Spanish radio station Onda Cero.

“It’s normal and natural and players are free to say what they want about it. I’m here as a coach due to circumstances, I’ve been the first person to admit that, no one else needs to say it.”

Spain will qualify for the last 16 of the World Cup with a draw against already-eliminated Morocco on Monday although in order to guarantee top spot in Group B they will need to outscore Portugal, who will be in action against Iran.

Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty

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