What links the Olympiastadion, the Bernabéu, the Luzhniki and New Douglas Park? Not a lot, as it happens.

But on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, one could draw a not-so-straight line between three vaunted homes of football and…eh . . . SuperSeal Stadium, to give it its former name.

That line, in truth, is not only crooked — it’s a squiggled mess. But that’s kind of what yesterday morning felt like in the Russian capital, as jumbled minds tried to straighten out what couldn’t be straightened, tried to come to terms with the most startling eve-of-tournaments one could ever recall. 

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Things had been floating along nicely in the early morning breeze. 
Sure there were some last-minute finishes being applied up and down the avenue of sponsors’ stands that make up the entrance to the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow where the host nation will kick it all off today. 

Under the watchful eye of the towering bronze statue of Lenin at the end of said avenue, Visa and Budweiser and McDonalds and Hyundai gave their VIP compounds a final polish. A rouble or two for the thoughts of old Vladimir as this chaotic caravan of capitalism pitched up in front of him for a month of milking the masses. 

Back inside the big house, Russian players were limbering up for opening day duties against Saudi Arabia. In terms of footballing interest, they are arguably the most low-key host nation in living memory.

Nonetheless, yesterday was to be a day in the spotlight as enigmatic manager Stanislav Cherchesov and venerable midfielder Aleksandr Samedov sat down with the world’s press to bang the drum and raise the volume around a team that the public certainly doesn’t love and maybe don’t even like all that much. 

Then came rumbles from the south west of the country. It is in Krasnodar where Spain have set up camp for their bid to rescale the heights of 2010 and atone for the implosion of 2014. 

From there on Tuesday, news emerged that their undefeated manager, Julen Lopetegui, had signed on to become the new head coach of Real Madrid, in spite of signing a new contract with the national team mere weeks ago. It was a surprising move but not one that shattered the earth.

Real had been desperate to appoint a new boss before things kicked off in Russia and had found options scarce. Lopetegui had lined out for them in his playing days, managed their B team briefly and done a more than admirable job rebuilding and recasting the national team over the past two years. 

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Turns out the news had shattered someone’s earth. And turns out that earth belonged to Luis Rubiales, a 40-year-old former journeyman defender who finished his playing days in the old Scottish Premier League in the red and white of Hamilton Academical. Four games were Rubiales’ lot before he called it quits in the wake of a 4-1 humbling at Ibrox in August of 2009. 

Almost immediately he moved into football administration, climbing all the way up to become president of the Spanish FA on May 18 this year. His first move in the role had been to sign Lopetegui to that lucrative extension. His second would prove much more fateful.

Rubiales had been given all of five minutes’ notice of his coach’s post-tournament departure before Real revealed the news to the world. He stormed from the UEFA hotel in Moscow on Tuesday night, ditching yesterday’s FIFA Congress to confront Lopetegui over what he apparently saw as at worst a betrayal and at best a stinging show of disrespect.

He was immediately of a mind to sack the coach, even with the World Cup due to kick off in just one single, solitary day and Spain’s opener — already a pivotal meeting with neighbours and rivals Portugal — scheduled 24 hours later in Sochi. According to reports in Spain,

Rubiales steadied himself, sat down with the squad in Krasnodar early yesterday morning and heard some plead for calm. He opted instead for chaos. 

Just as Russia’s leading men Cherchesov and Samedov were emerging into the press conference room at the Luzhniki, confirmation flashed in from the south: Lopetegui had been sacked. And an entire World Cup was turned on its head. 

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Incredulous questions peppered the air. What!? Why? Mostly how…how did we get here? On that crooked, messy line perhaps.

Zinedine Zidane had already had a defining influence on the destiny of two World Cups. But when he trudged head bowed past the trophy and into the darkness of the tunnel at Berlin’s Olympiastadion in 2006 that was assumed to have likely been his final act, unless he took over the reins of his national team at a future tournament. 

Turns out he didn’t even have to. 

It was Zidane’s decision to walk away from Real Madrid after claiming a third straight Champions League last month that sparked Florentino Perez into action. Never one to hang about, the Real president was adamant he had to have the hotseat filled before June 14. On Tuesday, he decided Lopetegui would come in. But 24 hours later, out went Lopetegui, sacked by the man who hung up his boots in south Lanarkshire. All of which took so much of the spotlight away from Russia.

From Berlin to Madrid to Moscow via Hamilton in one unholy mess of a line. The next question, once we’d figured out that Fernando Hierro would take over the Spanish reins was, understandably, now what?
Well, as Spain take 24 short hours to recover from 24 long hours, Russia might actually get some spotlight to themselves today.

A match that some have dubbed El Gasico will for better or worse kick off a World Cup that no one can now feel all that comfortable making predictions about. 

Cherchesov’s side may be tracking as the worst host nation in the tournament’s history. Vladimir Putin has already thrown shade their way by suggesting it is the facilities, the organisation, the logistics which would be Russia’s stars of the tournament. 

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The manager was asked if he had a message for the less-than-convinced Russian people yesterday. He smiled a knowing smile and said Westerners had to understand the local culture before they could understand answers to questions like that.

“You would find it hard to find a way through the labyrinth of the Russian soul,” he said. “It takes us a long time to start driving but when we do, we go all the way. But no-one ever achieved anything by words, so we have to follow it up with actions.”

The time for those actions begins today. Yet even if the hosts do manage to turn on the style against the Saudis many will still believe they’re headed for a group-stage exit. Many now believe the Spanish are headed the same way.