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Coping With Disaster

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Poor performances, disappointing directors, and their consequences

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

This was written shortly after the final whistle of El Clásico and before Real Madrid officially ditched Lopetegui. The sentiment remains the same, even if the verb tenses are now in the past. Like Lopetegui’s coaching career in Madrid.

There is a moment near the end of Star Wars: Episode III when Natalie Portman yells, through barely believable tears, “You’re breaking my heart!” My brother and sister and I will often shout this at each other when we witness someone who is normally quite talented giving a surprisingly horrible performance. The gist of this reference is that even someone with exceptional ability is capable of looking bad, and it’s usually down to poor direction from above. Even Portman, normally a more than capable actress, couldn’t turn in a decent performance with the crappy material and direction she had to work with.

As much as I hate to admit it, Julen Lopetegui has officially entered George Lucas territory. He has great ideas. Sometimes he even pulls some of them off and gets everyone’s hopes up that he can convert all the promise into a greater whole. But unlike the Lucas of the original Star Wars movies, he just can’t put it all together and make it work as a cohesive unit. The whole project just kind of sits there, somehow less than the sum of its parts and altogether disappointing.

This team was always due for some growing pains when Ronaldo left. Couple this with the loss of Zinedine Zidane, and a rocky season was pretty much assured. What was NOT a given was the lifelessness with which the team has played. Multiple players have come out and expressed support for Lopetegui in the midst of our recent skid, but their performances in El Clásico conveyed at best indifference toward the position he is currently in. Or rather, the position they are ALL in.

And that is the part that I find inexplicable – where is their pride? In the past, we have played poorly – abysmally, even, on occasion – but we almost always looked like we were up for the fight, even when we knew it was a long shot. I was only converted to a Madrid supporter over the course of the 2006-07 season, and my interactions with other Madrid fans during that time often left a bad taste in my mouth because of the hubris they all seemed to have about their team and its god-given place at the top. So when we lined up for El Clásico at the Camp Nou in 2008, my heart was still supporting Los Blancos but my mind was sort of on the fence.

That game was played out during a different set of dire circumstances. Bernd Schuster had just been ousted as the coach after claiming that “It is impossible to win at the Camp Nou.” In came Juande Ramos, on the eve of another showdown in Barcelona and with a ragtag team to whip into form. At that moment, we were without Pepe, Arjen Robben, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and Mahamadou Diarra, an all-star group of talent to be sure. Alas, Schuster was correct and it really was a bridge too far for Madrid, but dammit they at least TRIED. They shouldered their way into Barcelona’s attackers’ runs and generally gave their entire bodies to the cause. In the end, they lost 2-0, but the team felt reborn, and so did my fandom, especially when Iker Casillas dove to his left to save a penalty attempt from Samuel Eto’o. It was at that exact moment when I committed wholeheartedly to the team and gave up all the reservations I had regarding dealing with other fans. Screw those guys – my guys out on the field had heart for DAYS and their pride gave me plenty of my own for the club.

That sort of pride is what was missing from Sunday’s performance. Aside from an inspired first fifteen minutes of the second half, the squad looked, frankly, apathetic, and that is just not acceptable from a team of this caliber. Lopetegui can talk about bad luck all he wants; after half a dozen games of this sort of malaise that excuse just doesn’t hold water anymore. I don’t believe our present mess is entirely down to him – the players, the board, and good old Florentino Perez himself must share that burden – but the point remains that he has been unable to inspire from this team the kind of effort that should be required to play for the crest. It’s not like our players are chumps, either. We have world class talent on the field and on the bench, and if the best we can get from them is Natalie Portman in Star Wars, then a change needs to be made. They are breaking my heart as well.