Zinedine Zidane returns elusive La Liga as doubters answered
‘I’d like to get up here and dance. I’m not going to, but inside I’m very, very happy’
Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane sits at the Madrid Community headquarters during a celeration of their La Liga success. Photograph: Getty Images
For a moment there Marcelo looked a bit worried. Danilo, Casemiro and Lucas Vázquez bundled back out of the press room a little less noisily than they had bundled in, chanting and spraying champagne about.
Álvaro Morata followed them, getting out of the manager’s chair and taking the bottle off the desk as he departed. The Brazilian pushed him towards the door but then paused.
Glancing down a little sheepishly, he picked up the TV they’d knocked as they bounced around and set about trying to fix it.
From one side, Lucas said something: “Come on.” From the other, Zinedine Zidane smiled that smile and held out an arm.
So Marcelo gave up, laid the screen down, hugged his coach and left, letting out a whoop when he went.
Through the door to the right, round the corridor to the left and up the slope at one corner of the Rosaleda, Real Madrid’s league title winners were starting to head to the bus, most wearing T-shirts the kitman had handed out at full-time on the final day, 33 on the back.
Keylor Navas, head shaved as promised, dedicated the title to children with cancer and vowed to fight for his future. Pepe and Málaga midfielder Duda, who’d just played his last game, hid in a quiet corner drinking from cans wrapped in white paper.
Cristiano Ronaldo was insisting he’s no saint, but not the devil either. Isco said: “Relax, I’m staying.” And staff embraced. The driver was beaming.
Back in the press room Zidane wasn’t fixing anything but he had been left to tidy up. He shook a bit, wiped the champagne from his suit, straightened his chair and sat back down, composing himself, as if it had never happened.
If he wasn’t going wild, that’s just him
Now, what were we saying? What he had been saying before the noise had risen, the door flung open and the players paraded in, soaking him and singing campeones was that this was the happiest day of his career.
Yes, Zidane, World Cup winner, European champion with club and country, Champions League winner six months after becoming first team coach, said this moment, not those, was his best.
If he wasn’t going wild, that’s just him. “I’d like to get up here and dance. I’m not going to, but on the inside I’m very, very happy,” he said.
This was still Zidane’s floor, his chance to explain what it all meant, the moment he had been working towards. So he spoke quietly and everyone listened. Asked if he had enjoyed it, he replied: “Today.” After nine months, all that “suffering” – a word he repeated endlessly all year – at last he could and it meant everything.
He repeated what he’d said before he was interrupted: this was the best moment of his career, one he’d like share with his brother, “even though he doesn’t understand anything I say in Spanish … There are no words to define this … We live for this … The league is the top … Spectacular.” Asked if there had been tears, he replied: “No … maybe later.”
All of which might read like a bit of an exaggeration, but there was something in it. There was a lot in it, in fact. Ronaldo scored and Real Madrid won the league: it sounds normal but it is not.
Ronaldo is 33 and he joined Madrid back in 2009, yet until Sunday night he had won just one league with them. Madrid hadn’t won it the year before he arrived, either. Of the first-team squad, only eight had ever won a league anywhere.
This was Real Madrid’s 33rd title but it was also their first in five years, their second in nine. Not just any club – Real Madrid, the biggest, richest, most successful club there is.
It wasn’t enough. Over the previous eight seasons, Barcelona had won six, Madrid just one. Atlético had as many. If the league is the true measure of a team, the biggest club of all didn’t measure up.
Madrid are one game from a first league and European Cup double in 59 years
Even the 10th and 11th (yes, 10th and 11th) European Cups, while they eclipse everything, didn’t entirely rid them of that nagging realisation. So the club that built its identity through the European Cup made the league its priority. They did so very publicly: from the start, they said it, led by Zidane: it was about taking the title. As it turns out, they could yet take both.
Madrid are one game from a first league and European Cup double in 59 years. Their last eight continental titles came without the domestic title. This is historic, even for them.
For much of the season, this campaign defied easy analysis. Madrid went 40 games without defeat, yet daft though it may sound, they did not always convince. By the end, though, they did – more than Barcelona, even if the gap was only three points, a solitary win. “They deserve it,” said Andrés Iniesta.
Madrid won the league because Barcelona lost it too of course. For all the brilliance of the front three, and a record 116 goals scored, they never rid themselves of that sense of vulnerability, the dependence on Lionel Messi, and that was underlined in Europe. Too often the team once defined by their midfield didn’t really have one.
Luis Enrique’s side won at San Mamés, the Bernabéu, Mestalla, the Pizjuán and the Calderón, but the final day, when they had to come from behind against Eibar, ultimately felt like it defined their season more.
The cover of Sport read simply: “Oh no.” Barcelona had been beaten by Alavés, Celta and Málaga. They went to Deportivo three days after that win against Paris Saint-Germain and lost, their fate definitively out of their hands.
Madrid weren’t about to let them take it back again; even defeat in the clásico didn’t do that. Madrid’s late goals – in a quarter of their matches they had taken points by scoring in the last 10 minutes – were replaced by early ones, more assuredness.
At the same time, they knocked Bayern and Atlético out of Europe. In their last six league games the list of minutes in which they got their first goal reads: 1, 27, 3, 10, 10, 2 (although against Valencia they then needed a late winner).
On the final day, they were leading after one minute and 37 seconds, Ronaldo striding through to score, any drama or tension gone. Those final three matches were supposed to be hard but Sevilla, Celta and Málaga were all defeated.
Ten goals, they scored.
Madrid scored in every game this season, and via every route. Via pretty much every player, too. Not including the three goalkeepers, only Fábio Coentrão – a case apart – and Dani Carvajal didn’t score. Nineteen others did.
The substitutes offered solutions, the strength in depth extraordinary
This title was all of theirs, not just something some players watched others win from the bench or the stands. Obsessed with physical condition, Zidane talked about effectively having to play two seasons in one and didn’t just rotate two or three players at a time; as spring came, he rotated eight or nine.
Even Kiko Casilla, the back-up goalkeeper, was given minutes. The substitutes offered solutions, the strength in depth extraordinary. Most weeks, the men sitting on the bench would make up a five-a-side team to take pretty much anyone on.
By the April and May, they weren’t sitting on the bench most weeks any more.
As the second string went away and won four weeks in a row, it was tempting to adapt Bill Shankly’s famous quote; there are two great teams in Madrid – Real Madrid and Real Madrid reserves.
At times, they were better than the first-choice side had been, yet they were helping the first-choice side be better too. There was frustration, sure – James Rodríguez and Morata both admitted as much – and some were uneasy with Zidane saying the BBC were non-negotiable, while exits will be sought in the summer, but ultimately they were all made to feel like participants.
By the end 20 players reached 1,000 minutes or more. Madrid’s second and third top scorers, Isco and Morata, were not regular starters. Nor was James, but he got eight goals and six assists.
Isco was not a starter to begin with, anyway. By the end, with Gareth Bale’s absence, he was. Others had stood out over the course of a season which went through various phases – Marcelo, especially – but as it reached the final, decisive weeks, Isco was Madrid’s most impressive player, alongside Ronaldo.
With Isco, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric took a step forward too. There was control now. There were also goals. It felt appropriate that the goal that settled it was made by Isco and finished by Ronaldo, whose season was turned back to front and ultimately proved much the better for it. The story of 2016-17 was Madrid’s supporting cast until the final weeks – and then it was him again.
Back in August, Zidane sought Ronaldo out and explained his plan to protect the Portuguese, trying to convince him that it was not just a case of how many goals he scored, but which goals he scored. He told him, too, that this was a path to prolonging his career; not just a way of reaching the end of this season in better shape but reaching next season too and the season after that.
There was no point in flying through September and October only to struggle to the finish line in May, as he had done for the last few years. Ronaldo listened. That conversation now looks like Zidane’s greatest success.
“I have played seven, eight games fewer than previous seasons and that showed at the end: we have managed it more intelligently,” Ronaldo said. In fact, it is 11. “These are the games things are decided in,” he added, and it is his goals that have decided them. He has scored 40 this season, 14 of them in the last 40 days.
At the Rosaleda, he got the goal that took Madrid towards a title that had resisted them and, as he put it, left them “one step from making history”. All that under a coach who is only just beginning.
Four years ago, Zidane admitted that he didn’t know if he would make a good manager but he wanted to find out.
He’d had enough of hanging about, doing nothing in particular; he wanted to do something real. So he prepared – properly. Others were not convinced, including at the club, but increasingly he was.
There is another European Cup final to come too
On the day he was presented he was asked what counted as success. “Winning everything,” he said. It seemed implausible that day, but it turns out he was right.
After five months he won the European Cup, now he has won the league – and this success feels much more like it is his than Milan did, the doubts that surrounded him decreasing by the day. It had been long and hard he said, but the satisfaction lay in precisely that – in the work, the leadership, the sense of responsibility.
“I live what I am doing with passion,” Zidane said. “After nine, 10 months, to win the league five years later … pfff … there are no words. When you are at Real Madrid you know the expectations are high and I like that. I lived that as a player but this is my happiest day because as a coach it changes completely.”
Madrid had won the league, at last. What now, Zidane was asked. After all, there is another European Cup final to come too. Sitting there soaked in champagne, the bus waiting outside to take them to the airport and from there to Madrid, where they were due to land at 2am and where a crowd had been gathering before the game had even ended, so sure were they that the wait was over, Zidane smiled.
“Now? Now, we’re going to celebrate,” he said. “We’ll go to Cibeles to see the people because the people have to see their team.”
There were tears on the final day; there was Fernando Torres too.
The Kid, who is no longer a kid, scored twice in the opening 10 minutes of the last ever Atlético Madrid match at the Vicente Calderón.
Nostalgia took hold, the club’s title winners brought together for a giant team photo, banners round the stadium recalling the men and the moments that marked the place over 50 years, the feelings too, and a huge mosaic declared: “How I love you.”
They walked down Melancholics’ Way for the last time, its name more appropriate than ever before – and it has long been appropriate. It was a mess, it was falling down, but it was home.
There is a future at this club and it is all of us
Now they’re moving to A Stadium Called Wanda, right over on the other side of the city, another world, and things will never be the same again.
There may yet be hope that they might still be quite good, though. Afterwards Diego Simeone confirmed that he was staying.
“There is a future at this club and it is all of us,” he said.