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Zinedine Zidane: A Real Madrid coach to be remembered forever

Robin Bairner
1.07K   //    03 Jun 2018, 12:55 IST

Real Madrid v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final
Zidane with the Champions League title

The champagne had barely lost its fizz when Zinedine Zidane elected to announce his decision to stand down as Real Madrid boss on Thursday, having guided the Spanish giants to an unprecedented third successive Champions League title.

It is an achievement that history shows us may take a generation or more to match.

Indeed, the measure of success that the 45-year-old had at the helm of the club where he was equally revered as a player that his decision to step down was greeted with quite so much grief.

Madrid, remember, are the team that twice sacked Fabio Capello after he had won the league due to that fact that he did not play beautiful enough football. They are a club whose standards are like no other.

As Zidane explained his decision to the press, club president Florentino Perez gave much away simply with the look. He sat stony-faced, almost shocked and certainly disappointment with what his general had to say.

“I had to do it,” Zidane said, who left after 149 matches and an incredible 105 wins.

It will fall on Perez to replace him, just as it was his responsibility of putting the icon into the role in the first place. The fact that it is clear that the club had no succession plan in place shows that it was entirely the coach’s decision to depart and that it came from the blue.

Zidane achieved much in a two-and-a-half-year spell in the hot seat after replacing Rafael Benitez, sacked with the club ailing at Christmas 2015.

Real Madrid Training and Press Conference
Real Madrid Training and Press Conference

Perez took the decision to appoint Zidane in early January. It was not the straightforward call to promote the Castilla coach that hindsight now makes it appear. Instead, it was a brave decision to gamble upon a boss with no top-level experience in management to that point.

The aura with which Zidane carried around him, however, helped to unite a fragmented dressing room and he inspired them to Champions League glory, defeating Atletico Madrid on penalties in the final. His abilities on the field, which were amply demonstrated with Madrid, Juventus and France, comfortably outweighed the handicap of having never led such a club from the technical area before.

And from there, the Zidane reign only gained strength. It could never be described as a revolution, as huge changes were not implemented, but there was certainly an evolution of the side into one with an incredible big-game mentality that was unparalleled for its time.

Zidane’s on-field leaders, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, both typified the attitude that he asked his side to adopt. Neither let him down when it mattered and contributed hugely at vital moments of the Champions League hat-trick.

Having been an elite player himself, he was instinctively aware that such talents should be allowed simply to do their jobs, play by their nature and not have their lives overcomplicated.

"I'm just proud of being your player," Ronaldo wrote on Instagram.

Malaga CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
Malaga CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga

Meanwhile, it was to Ramos he spoke initially when he decided to quit. Few of the other Madrid players were given the honour of an audience with their coach, who instead elected to tell them via a message.

His willingness to delegate responsibility to his senior player perhaps made him open to criticism on a tactical level, but there is no arguing with what he managed to achieve in terms of results. This was simply Zidane playing to his strengths.

And now he has done so once again by choosing this moment to walk away when the task of keeping the success going requires a different skillset.

No longer will Zidane’s presence be sufficient to keep Madrid at the very top. This is a squad that needs to be reconstructed, as the Frenchman himself admitted.

“I think this team needs to keep winning and a change was needed,” he said as he stepped down. “The team need a different discourse and a different methodology. I love this club very much and I am grateful for everything. But today, a change is needed.

“If I'm not seeing things as clearly as I want to, I think it's better to change and avoid stupid things.”

Perhaps he is suggesting that he does not know which way to turn at this point but recognising that should be applauded.

These comments even echo those of Pep Guardiola, who stepped down as Barcelona boss when they were seemingly at the height of their pomp, arguing that it is not healthy for one coach to lead such a big club for so long.

The end of an era

Indeed, Madrid had a season in which they flirted with disaster. A third-placed finish in La Liga was highly disappointing after such a promising start to the season, while Champions League elimination was flirted with against both Juventus and Bayern Munich. Having been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganes, success in Europe saved their whole season.

In such situations, Zidane’s lack of experience was telling, but as he develops as a coach he will gain this.

Where he goes next is now the question on everyone’s lips.

In the immediate future, a period of respite seems likely, though, in the long-term, there is one role he is destined for.

“He will definitely be a coach of the French team someday,” current boss Didier Deschamps said. “When? I cannot say. But it seems logical. It will happen when it happens.”

In the present, though, Zidane can enjoy the freedom of having left at the top. It is a privilege denied to many, especially at a club as cutthroat as Real Madrid.

As such, his champagne will taste even sweeter than it did in the aftermath of that famous Liverpool win.

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Robin Bairner
UK-based freelance football journalist for the last decade, I've appeared in publications such as the Guardian, the Blizzard, When Saturday Comes, but can most frequently be found on I write about European football, and have worked at both World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016.
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