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World Cup notes: Spain replaces coach Julen Lopetegui with Fernando Hierro two days before opener

Spain will go into the World Cup under new management after the country’s soccer association fired manager Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday, two days before its tournament opener against Portugal in Sochi, Russia.

The move came after Spanish club Real Madrid said Lopetegui would become its manager after the World Cup, an announcement that angered Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish soccer federation.

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“The federation cannot be left out of a negotiation by one of its workers and be informed five minutes before the press release,” said Rubiales, who is just a month into his job.

“It’s a difficult situation, but we are not the ones who determined the action that had to be taken. The federation has its values and it has to maintain them. It may look like a weakness now, but with time this will make us stronger.”

Spain, the 2010 World Cup champion and one of the favorites in this summer’s tournament, will be led by Fernando Hierro, 50, a former national team player and Real Madrid captain whose only head coaching experience lasted two seasons in Spain’s second division.

Hierro, who played in four World Cup tournaments, had been serving as the federation’s sports director.

“I couldn't have said ‘no,’ I wouldn’t forgive myself,” Hierro said of accepting his new position. “We still have a great opportunity in front of us. We have to remain positive and move forward.”

Lopetegui, 51, took over for longtime coach Vicente del Bosque after the 2016 European Championship and has been credited with breathing new life into a team that was on the decline after winning three consecutive major titles between 2008 and 2012.

There were reports that some national team players, six of who also play for Real Madrid, tried to persuade Rubiales to keep Lopetegui.

“We are the national team. We represent this emblem, these colors, our fans, a country,” Spain captain Sergio Ramos wrote on Twitter. “Our responsibility and commitment is to you. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, together.”

Spain's former national soccer coach Julen Lopetegui arrives at Krasnodar Airport in Russia before flying back to Spain on June 13.
Spain's former national soccer coach Julen Lopetegui arrives at Krasnodar Airport in Russia before flying back to Spain on June 13. (EPA-EFE / REX / Shutterstock)

Infantino to run again

President Gianni Infantino ended FIFA’s 68th Congress by announcing he would run for re-election next year as the group’s leader.

“I want another four years of it because I believe in what I do. I believe in what I can do for FIFA and for football,” Infantino said before closing the meeting.

Infantino, 48, was elected to his current term in February 2016, replacing Sepp Blatter, who was forced to resign amid a wide-ranging corruption scandal.

FIFA’s elections are scheduled for next June in Paris.

Mexico loses Reyes

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Mexico, which has been plagued by injury in the run-up to its World Cup opener, was dealt another blow Wednesday when it announced midfielder Diego Reyes has been ruled out of the tournament with a right thigh injury.

Reyes was injured last month while playing for Porto and missed Mexico’s last three friendlies. Reyes’ spot on the team will be taken by midfielder Erik Gutierrez.

Mexico opens tournament play Sunday against defending champion Germany.

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