Zidane takes his time but ready to make final point to Juventus
Real Madrid boss looking to emulate Arrigo Sacchi in Cardiff
Zinedine Zidane: Looking to become the first manager to retain the European Cup since AC Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi in 1990. Photograph: Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
Zinedine Zidane was late. On the Juventus team bus, Carlo Ancelotti consulted his watch. Then he did so again. And again. One of Ancelotti’s qualities as a manager is his pragmatism but even his has limits. And Zidane’s mobile phone was switched off.
“Let’s go,” Ancelotti eventually said to the driver.
But the bus did not go. From the back of it came Paolo Montero. The Uruguayan defender was midway through a formidable decade at Juve; Zidane was his best mate. It was around the year 2000 and both players preceded Ancelotti at the club, which seemed to matter.
Ancelotti has a brilliant turn-of-phrase and describes Montero thus: “Given the choice between the good and the not-so-good, he has always sacrificed the good.”
Clenching and unclenching his fists, according to Ancelotti, Montero informed his manager that “no one is leaving here without Zidane.”
And he was correct. The bus waited, 10 minutes later Zidane appeared and off Juventus set.
It was not the only time this occurred, Ancelotti says. There was an apology from Zizou but this is an anecdote that gives us a different Zinedine Zidane, one who knows his own worth, one who makes his own time, one who played for Juventus.
Of course, making his own time is what he did with supreme impact on the pitch and Ancelotti is as far from critical as you can get on that, describing Zidane as “the greatest player I ever coached – the sole inhabitant of a very different planet”.
Zidane was such a delight at Juve that others felt the same, Gianni Agnelli, the club’s owner, among them.
“When they looked at Zidane,” Ancelotti says, “they saw a pure and glowing light, a traffic light that was permanently green. A right of way to extraordinary transport, and he was certainly extraordinary; too bad for us if he often showed up late.”
It must alter you in some way, to be this loved. Ancelotti is right: Zidane was extraordinary, a poet with a cushion and a blade. And to be so revered, so admired that a head-butt and red card in a World Cup final is not the defining image of your career, that is a man on another level.
You would not cross him. For all the affection he inspires, Zidane is clearly one hard man. That red card in 2006 was one of 14 in his playing career. Only this week one former teammate said: “Don’t confuse this management style with being soft.”
Other former playing colleagues repeatedly refer to Zidane’s shyness, but a more appropriate description might be intense restraint.
As Vicente Del Bosque put it: “It’s true he is shy – the hardest thing for him to deal with was the popularity – but it is an attractive shyness, you know there is a big personality behind it.”
Zidane has said of himself: “I’m a different man on the pitch than I am off it.” He says, too, that fatherhood has changed him: “You come from an egotistical self-centred place to discover a new life, where you’re giving your energy and everything you have to give to people around you and not to yourself.” He knows his own ego.
Now he has joined Ancelotti on the wobbly bench of life, as the Italian calls it, and it was first as assistant to Ancelotti, who only left the Bernabeu two years ago. Presumably Zidane’s phone was on when this call came.
Rafa Benitez succeeded Ancelotti, for a whole 25 matches. Zidane, meanwhile, went to Real Madrid ‘B’, where his record was compared unfavourably to Pep Guardiola’s in the equivalent role at Barcelona. But then, just 16 months ago, Zidane was summoned by Real’s ultimate power, Florentino Perez, and lo, Zidane has come down to the ordinary world.
Admittedly, you can see the attraction: It is not a bad place to start, the biggest club on the planet. Nor was it a bad way to begin, winning the Champions League four months after his appointment.
Zidane has followed that by coaxing a first La Liga title in five seasons and now there is the possibility of Real becoming the first team to successfully defend the big ears trophy in the Champions League era.
Once more there is admiration for Zidane. It comes with curiosity and some doubts, though. Just how hard can it be to manage a squad of Real Madrid’s capabilities? Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo – these players are fully formed, hence they’re at Real Madrid.
One answer, from Ancelotti, is that the job at the Bernabeu is less about coaching and more about gaining and maintaining respect from superstar players. Alessandro Del Piero made the point that, as a player, Zidane was “always in sync with everybody . . . always able to read the game . . . he wanted to help.”
Still, you have to provide everyday coaching sessions that stimulate – help – and not everyone can. Judging by the harmonious sounds from the squad, Zidane has been able to. His “big personality” might not reveal itself noisily, but it can make its presence felt. A mountainous quiet.
Another answer is that Real is a club where the coach has to manage sideways and upwards too. Zidane is their 14th manager this century. Remember Wanderley Luxemburgo? Bernd Schuster?
Zidane has shown he can do that, too, which is not straightforward. Perez dominates the club and uses phrases such as “a new impulse” to justify dismissals.
For that reason, the Bernabeu politics, we are not – yet – thinking of Zidane as the Cruyff of Real Madrid, there will be no philosophy that reaches down the generations.
Zidane has already been given a taste of the other side of the club when, after four consecutive draws early this season, the well-informed local press began to speak of “pressure”. Not even the greatest galactico is immune.
There is one year left on his contract and mention of the job as Didier Deschamps’ successor with France is increasing.
But Zidane might just fancy battling his way to a contract extension, laying down the sort of tenure that Real Madrid has not seen since Del Bosque’s four years from 1999. That would be Zidane making his own time again, pushing doubt to the margins.
A victory over Juventus would surely make even an impulsive man such as Perez pause. If so, Zizou will again have stopped the bus, and, given we think of Real Madrid as a juggernaut that waits for no one, it would be up there with the greatest achievements of this man who may well be a lot tougher, and definitely more talented, than he is shy.