Robert Moreno will be feeling let down over the manner of Luis Enrique’s return to the helm but it could be the making of a previously unknown coach
It should have been a happy day, “a party,” one reporter suggested, with Luis Enrique taking back the reins as Spain coach from his former assistant Robert Moreno. Instead, as the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) announced the ex-Barcelona coach’s return to national team duty on Tuesday, the fractured relationship between the Asturian and the man he replaces, a close friend for many years, was left painfully exposed.
Luis Enrique left the Spain job in June, to spend time caring for his daughter Xana, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer at just nine years old. His then assistant, Moreno, who had already taken charge of a few matches in Lucho’s stead, took the reins officially and led Spain to Euro 2020 qualification.
The new coach previously said he would step aside if Luis Enrique wanted to return and after Xana’s tragic death in August and a period of mourning, he has been ready to come back.
It was a difficult situation for the RFEF [Spanish FA] to handle and it spiralled out of control at the start of this week. RFEF president Luis Rubiales and the organisation’s sporting director, Jose Francisco Molina, settled in for a long press conference on Tuesday, determined to tell their truth until every media member in the packed Las Rozas auditorium was satisfied.
They spoke in a press conference which stretched over 90 minutes, starting with Rubiales giving a blow by blow timeline of events – at least from the Federation’s perspective. It bears repeating.
Rubiales said in June Moreno took over but it was clear that Luis Enrique would be welcome back if he felt ready to take on the job again. They agreed to wait until Spain had sealed passage to Euro 2020 before finding out how he felt.
The RFEF recently told Moreno they would the evaluate the idea of Luis Enrique returning. On Monday, before Spain faced Romania, Moreno sent the RFEF a message in which he said he wanted to agree terms for his departure to allow for Luis Enrique’s comeback. The RFEF, seeing the situation as “an emergency and a crisis” spoke to Luis Enrique again and he agreed to take over again.
Moreno did not give his press conference after thrashing Romania in the final Euro 2020 qualifier, and sent two lawyers to attend a meeting with the RFEF early Tuesday morning, before they officially announced Lucho’s return.
Reports in Spanish media said Moreno was distraught on the night of the clash with Romania. “They’ve thrown me away, they’ve thrown me away,” he has been reported to have cried to his players after their victory. The Spain squad knew by that point, with Rubiales phoning captains Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets.
And yet, Moreno himself had been the first to say he would gladly allow Luis Enrique to come back.
“I consider Luis a friend and friendship comes before anything else in life because without it, I think you lose what it means to be a person,” Moreno told reporters in September.
“So if the time comes when he decides that he wants to come back and be coach, whenever that might be, and he wants to be involved with us, then I would be the first and most delighted to step aside and go back to working with him.”
However by the end of his tenure, the feeling was different. Spain thrashed Malta 7-0 in Cadiz on November 17 but Moreno was bullheaded about his chances of staying on.
“I don’t need to sit down with Rubiales or Molina,” he said. “They have always trusted me and told me things to my face.”
At the time of writing Moreno had not spoken out or given his side of the story, but it seems unlikely he feels the same way now. Other reports have surfaced suggesting the RFEF met Luis Enrique at the end of October and one of his demands to return was that Moreno would not be his assistant, albeit expressed indirectly.
On both a footballing and human level it made sense for Luis Enrique to come back. “We have a moral duty to him,” explained Rubiales. Moreno achieved an impressive record of seven wins and two draws as coach, but the team failed to dominate matches until the last two he managed, against Malta and Romania, and Spain would not have been among the true favourites next summer.
The RFEF are widely seen to have handled the case as well as they can, with the relationship breakdown between Luis Enrique and Moreno the biggest obstacle to a smooth operation. Cadena Cope radio station reported that Moreno had not visited Luis Enrique at home or in the hospital during his daughter’s illness.
Marca say decisions made by Moreno in Luis Enrique’s absence, even before he became the full-time manager, led to tension between them, including starting Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga over Manchester United’s David de Gea.
Luis Enrique will need to pick a new assistant and coaching team, but otherwise the controversy over his return should not affect him. He had little time for media tittle-tattle during his time as Barcelona manager and will brush off the inevitable questions about Moreno at the start of his reign. Friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands in March will help him tune up the squad for Euro 2020 and by then minds will be on whether Spain can lift the trophy for a fourth time.
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Moreno, meanwhile, will take time to recover from the feeling he has been betrayed and missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime but when the dust settles, and that happens quickly in football, a La Liga side will take a chance on him sooner rather than later.
An unknown before taking the reins with Spain, Moreno worked in the shadows as Luis Enrique’s assistant at Barca B, Roma and Celta Vigo, but now he has been a name everybody will remember.
For now this sad episode stings, but it could prove the making of him.