It should have been the best of news, something to celebrate; instead, the Spanish football federation found itself confronted by another crisis. Luis Enrique, the manager forced to abandon the national team because his nine-year-old daughter had cancer, will return four months after he stepped down and three months after her death.
Robert Moreno, his assistant and friend who took charge and led Spain unbeaten to Euro 2020, completing qualification with a 5-0 destruction of Romania, steps aside – something he said he would be “delighted” to do 10 weeks ago. Spain have their manager back and seven months to prepare for the summer.
Yet what might appear the perfect scenario has left a feeling of regret and recrimination, the former Spain captain Iker Casillas calling it a “joke” and the federation president, Luis Rubiales, facing the media for an hour and half on Tuesday morning.
The press conference was called to confirm Luis Enrique was returning and that Moreno would leave and not go back to his former role. Exactly why, what has happened between the two, remains the great question.
Luis Enrique will be Spain’s fifth manager in 17 months: Julen Lopetegui, who was sacked on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, was followed by Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique, Moreno and Luis Enrique again. He has not yet signed a contract but is expected to take over before the end of the year.
Luis Enrique suddenly left the Spain camp in March just before they played Malta, following news that his daughter Xana was seriously ill. He continued to manage from a distance with Moreno taking his place in the dugout but in July Luis Enrique stepped down. Moreno was handed the job and given a contract until the end of Euro 2020, although Rubiales said it was always on the understanding Luis Enrique could return.
In September Moreno said he would be “delighted to step aside,” insisting Luis Enrique “is a friend and friends are above all else” but over the past two months he has expressed a desire to continue as the manager. The feeling grew that he no longer saw himself as a stand-in and something appears to have changed between Moreno and Luis Enrique.
When reports appeared last week suggesting Rubiales was unconvinced by Moreno and was seeking alternatives, Moreno demanded clarification. According to Rubiales, when Moreno was told they were evaluating whether to bring Luis Enrique back, Moreno sent a message saying he wanted to leave so as not to be an obstacle.
“We have been honest from the start: we always said, 1,001 times, the door would always be open for Luis Enrique whenever he wanted to return,” Rubiales said. “We told Moreno from the very start the moment Luis Enrique wanted to return, he would return. We have always been transparent. That same day, I promised that when Luis Enrique felt strong enough to come back, he had the door open. We have that moral duty to him. We have acted with total honesty.
“Since Luis Enrique’s daughter died we have spoken just three times: on 29 August, when I gave him my condolences, in a meeting in October and Monday morning.
“It was Robert Moreno who told us he had spoken to Luis Enrique and that Luis Enrique said he wanted to come back. We found out from him. So we had a meeting in Zaragoza in October and Luis Enrique told us he wanted to come back to work. José Francisco Molina [Spain’s sporting director] thinks, turns it over and tells me: ‘We’re going to talk to everyone when the qualification phase finishes.’ But then on Sunday Moreno tells Molina: ‘I want to know now what you want to do.’ Molina says: ‘Look, if Luis Enrique wants to come back and take his job, and lead this project he started, we’re going to evaluate this possibility.’
“No one had spoken to Luis Enrique: no negotiations, nothing,” Rubiales continued, reading from a sheet of paper. “And then on Monday morning we get a message from Moreno; he says, I quote: ‘I want to agree my departure, to not get in the way of Luis Enrique’s return.’ He tells us that on the day of the game [against Romania], in the morning. And immediately, a crisis, an emergency. Molina calls me and says: ‘Luis, we have a problem.’ It is just the fact we said we would evaluate Luis Enrique’s return that makes Robert not want to continue. The first person to know what Luis Enrique wants, even before us, is Robert.”
Rubiales also said events had been precipitated by Moreno’s decision to walk away. They had not planned for this to happen yet.
Yet as Rubiales talked, Moreno’s lawyers were meeting representatives of the federation. That meeting had been called between Moreno and Molina but Moreno had not shown up, Rubiales said. The president refused to describe Moreno’s departure as a “resignation” or a “sacking”, speaking only of a “decision”.
“Today should have been a party,” he said but instead there was unease and the reaction from fans and the media has been fierce. Rubiales had said one of the reasons he had opted for Moreno was to make Luis Enrique’s return “smoother” but this was far from smooth.
He repeatedly refused to be drawn on the relationship between the friends and former colleagues and made clear it will be Luis Enrique who chooses his backroom staff. That Moreno is not included is clear. Why is a different matter. Something has changed.
The final night of Moreno’s time was traumatic. He left the Metropolitano in Madrid unbeaten as Spain’s manager but was not in a fit state to speak to the media. He had been in tears in the dressing room. The players also avoided reporters, leaving by a side door.