How 'tough but talented' Lopetegui has forged a path to West Ham

By Graham Hunter 23 May 2024
Lopetegui, West Ham

Spanish football expert Graham Hunter chronicles the career of West Ham's new man in charge

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Spanish football expert Graham Hunter details the career of Julen Lopetegui from his playing days to time in management.

For West Ham United it’s neat timing to announce a Basque head coach just after three men born within a 19-mile radius of him - Andoni Iraola, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta - made the Premier League Manager of the Season shortlist and when two of this season’s UEFA finalists are coached by fellow Basques: Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen and Jose Luis Mendilibar’s Olympiacos. 

For Lopetegui it’s slightly unusual to be so in fashion, or for things to fall so beautifully into place. 

He’s unquestionably a successful, disciplined, articulate and talented coach. But every inch of his career has required grit, an ability to handle adversity and his flinty Basque DNA being relentlessly tested. 

Beginnings at Real Madrid

Few will remember him as a rangy goalkeeper who won LaLiga with Real Madrid.

Spanish football was less televised at the time and his glory days came not at the big clubs who signed him but instead where it was least expected - UD Logrones and Rayo Vallecano.  

That Lopetegui possessed elite talent is not, unfortunately, proven by his stats or trophies. But no one could turn up their noses at the parade of stars that Lopetegui played and trained with - or by whom he was coached. 

Recognise these team-mates? Ronaldo Nazario, Pep Guardiola, Luis Figo, Txiki Begiristain, Hugo Sanchez, Bernd Schuster, Fernando Hierro, Jordi Cruyff, Gheorghe Hagi, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Enrique, Emilio Butragueno. You can add to that list tennis legend Rafael Nadal’s uncle, Miguel Angel, and Sergio Busquet’s dad Carles.

His coaches include John Toshack, Sir Bobby Robson, Jose Mourinho and the “Daddy” of them all, Johan Cruyff.

Four Ballon D’Or winners, multiple European champions at club or national level plus a couple of FIFA World Cup winners. Notable company.

But while Real Madrid and Barcelona knew Lopetegui fitted in such company, his performances didn’t quite match expectations. 

He made just one first-team appearance for Los Blancos - by which stage, in April 1990, Toshack’s Madrid had wrapped up the title. Conceding three times to Atletico Madrid in the “Derbi” meant that Lopetegui never played for Madrid again.

Move to Barcelona

Pitching up at Barcelona looked like a good response.  

The reigning champions, led by Cruyff, had a star-studded squad - but things went about as unfortunately as they could have done for Lopetegui.  

He made his debut in the 1994 Spanish Super Cup at Camp Nou with Barca 2-0 up from the away leg against Gus Poyet’s Real Zaragoza.

Barcelona defended atrociously, Lopetegui was exposed, and after half an hour they were trailing 1-3 and losing on away goals. Lopetegui’s travails multiplied when a gentle free-kick trickled through his hands and then he was sent off in the 90th minute as the “Dream Team” lost 5-4. 

His next big test? A Spanish Cup tie against Atletico at Camp Nou, where he conceded a penalty and was sent off after only 13 minutes as Barca were thrashed 4-1.

Julen Lopetegui Real Valladolid

Two home games, two red cards, two defeats. 

The following season, Robson started him in the 3-1 UEFA Super Cup final defeat to an Atletico team featuring current coach Diego Simeone in midfield. 

Nine years at Madrid and Barcelona combined: 11 first-team matches, two wins.  

"Julen's the unluckiest Barca player I've ever known," club president Nicolau Casaus commented ruefully.

Strong heritage

Perhaps this is where heritage kicked in. Lopetegui's father was a hugely famous Basque strongman - known as a Harrijasotzailea. 

A tough career, tough mentality. Julen inherited terrific DNA. 

At his most powerful, Jose Antonio Lopetegui had a chest sufficiently broad to play five-a-side football on, made Jack Reacher look puny and could lift 100 kilos 22 times in 60 seconds. 

There’s a superb photo of Julen gazing at his gargantuan dad while Jose Antonio is lifting each of his daughters up in the air on the palm of his hands. 

You’ve identified it in Arteta, Emery, Iraola - they make them tough up there. Character, mentality, determination to win, determination to beat any adversity. Admirable traits. 

Move into coaching

Lopetegui’s achievements as a coach dwarf even those of his playing career, which saw him picked as one of Spain’s ’keepers to travel to the 1994 World Cup in the United States and help Rayo reach the 2001 UEFA Cup quarter-finals.

He coached Spain to European titles at Under-19 and Under-21 levels, in tournaments featuring Jordan Henderson, Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Wilfried Zaha, Memphis Depay and Antonio Rudiger

Those Spain wins were the first big trophies for players such as Kepa Arrizabalaga, Gerard Deulofeu, David De Gea, Alberto Moreno, Thiago Alcantara, Isco, Alvaro Morata, Dani Carvajal and Nacho. 

As coach of the Spain senior side, he didn’t lose a match. “La Roja” played scintillatingly, and it was only their FA President’s misjudged decision to sack Lopetegui, because he announced he was taking over at Real Madrid immediately after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, that stopped him having a real tilt at the biggest trophy there is. 

Julen Lopetegui Real

Xavi Hernandez, back then, said: "Lopetegui has brought pride and ambition to Spain - he's working well with loads of intensity and they've recuperated the enjoyment and unity which was absent in some previous matches.”

Lopetegui’s sports psychologist Juan Carlos Alvarez, with him at Porto, Spain and Sevilla, says about West Ham’s new coach: “Julen works from very clear principles to which he’s completely loyal and which he teaches well. 

"Whoever he works with gets treated with respect and honesty. Some coaches in football today are really thinking about how to ensure that they safeguard their status and employment. They care about winning and nothing else. Julen coaches to win, definitely, but he’s completely dedicated to improving the team and developing the individual players.”

If his short spells in charge of Madrid and Wolverhampton Wanderers are concerning to some, then look instead at his impressive runs of results at Sevilla and Porto. He took charge of 170 and 78 matches respectively at those clubs and was undefeated in 79 per cent and 88 per cent of his matches, respectively.

JL wolves

Or look at his run of 39 matches when coaching both Spain and their U21s, where he didn’t lose a single match.

Lopetegui isn’t at West Ham because he’s Basque, or tough, or plays the piano or cooks well, although that's all true - it’s because he’s talented.

Graham Hunter (@BumperGraham) is a Spanish football writer, producer and broadcaster.   

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