Ken Early: Zinedine Zidane faces test of his political skills

Real Madrid manager’s charisma as player enhanced by spectacular meltdowns

Real Madrid sack Rafa Benitez after less than half a season and replace him with France great Zinedine Zidane who steps up from B team coach. Video: Reuters

 

‘It’s difficult to say who is the best player in the world. It’s like asking my daughter whether she prefers my wife or me. Not easy.”

The scene was a Real Madrid press conference back in July, and it was already becoming apparent that Rafael Benítez would not be cut out for the job of managing Madrid. The questioner wanted to know whether Benítez thought Cristiano Ronaldo was the best in the world. If you are the manager of Real Madrid, this question has a right answer and a true answer, and they’re not the same answer.

Ronaldo’s most trusted confidante is his agent, Jorge Mendes, who tells him not only that he is the best footballer in the world, but that he is the greatest athlete of all time. Mendes knows that’s what Cristiano likes to hear.

Benitez chose truth over wisdom. “I think Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, James ... they’re all up there ... I think describing Ronaldo as ‘one of the best’ is sufficient.”

He managed at least to refrain from pointing out that Lionel Messi is obviously the best in the world, but the damage was done. The problem was not that Benítez had ruined his relationship with Ronaldo. The problem was what the gaffe said about his political skills.

There was a time when a football coach like Benítez might have had the skills to lead Real Madrid, but those days are gone. Coaching is the least important of the duties of the Real Madrid coach. Madrid’s history over the last 20 years suggests that the more coaching the coach tries to do, the more the Madrid players resent him. They consider themselves the best in the world, and tend to dislike anyone who tries to tell them how to do their jobs.

Second Captains

Instead they want a manager who makes them feel good. Madrid have had 19 coaches in the last 20 years and the only ones who have succeeded are Carlo Ancelotti and Vicente del Bosque. Both of them personify the ideal of the coach as politician-diplomat – smooth, understated leaders with high emotional intelligence, who combine the ability to defuse tension among their players with the capacity to put up with a boss like Florentino Pérez. Ancelotti and del Bosque share a cardinal virtue: they almost never lose their temper.

If that’s the template, then the new Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane, seems hopelessly unsuited to the role. No footballer has ever indulged explosive fits of temper more than Zidane.

“If you look at the 14 red cards I had, 12 of them were a result of provocation,” Zidane once told Esquire. “This isn’t an excuse, but my passion, temper and blood made me react.”

Meltdowns

When Zidane was a player, his occasional spectacular meltdowns only enhanced his mystery and charisma. Coaches have to play by different rules. His new job is all about staying cool in the face of an endless stream of provocations and irritations. Hopefully retirement has mellowed him.

Maybe the day will come when we get used to the seeing Zidane on the sideline in a suit and tie. For now he still seems incomplete without a ball at his feet. Watching the 2006 movie Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, in which the camera focuses on Zidane for the duration of a match between Real and Villarreal, you’re struck by the contrast between his strangely stiff, stalking gait as he moves about the field waiting for a pass, and the graceful fluidity of his movements with the ball.

The other thing that impresses you is his silence. Some great players who went on to become great coaches – the likes of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola – never stopped talking during a game, but Zidane scarcely ever opens his mouth. Naturally, the movie ends with Zidane getting sent off after he rushes over to join in a brawl that has nothing to do with him. Even when David Beckham is dragging him away from the fight, Zidane has nothing to say.

If you missed the Zidane movie at the time, don’t go digging it out now. It was inspired by a similar 1971 West German film that followed George Best during a match at Old Trafford. That movie was called Fussball wie noch nie – ‘Football As Never Before’ – and it lived up to its title. Never before had the game looked so silly and pointless.

Taken out of context, stripped of their relation to the other 21 players, even the greatest footballers are made to look somehow absurd – rushing randomly about, gaze fixed on some distant irrelevance.

Hero-worship

If the idea was to make a subtle point about the primacy of interconnectedness in the human condition, to demonstrate the ultimate absurdity of hero-worship, then maybe these movies succeeded. In terms of sheer spectacle, you’d be better off watching an actual game.

A film that followed a manager for 90 minutes on the bench might be more watchable. You can imagine Rafael Benítez getting up from the Madrid bench to yell instructions, staring at the play long enough to see the instructions ignored, retiring to his seat muttering curses, scribbling bitterly in his notepad. Because Rafa really was fighting his battle alone, the frame would contain the whole story.

Zidane’s tenure as Real Madrid coach probably won’t yield many trophies, but maybe it will at least provide the makings of a better movie.

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