Zinedine Zidane right to leave Real Madrid before the storm

Three-time Champions League winning manager has stepped away on his own terms

Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane looks on after a press conference to announce his resignation in Madrid. Photo: Pierre Philippe Marcou/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane looks on after a press conference to announce his resignation in Madrid. Photo: Pierre Philippe Marcou/Getty Images

 

“It might look like a strange moment but it is the right moment,” Zinedine Zidane said. And so, 878 days after taking over as manager and only five since he led them to the European Cup again, he walked away from Real Madrid. During the press conference at which he announced the decision, the president, Florentino Pérez, sitting alongside him wearing a dark suit and a darker look, Zidane was repeatedly asked if things might have been different.

Mostly he said “no” and the president too insisted there was no point trying to change his mind. And yet at the very end the Frenchman was asked if he might have stayed had Real lost the Champions League final in Kiev instead of winning it, and that time he smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe,” he added, pausing and smiling. “Maybe.” Then he got up, shook the president’s hand and walked through the door at the side of the press room at the Valdebebas training ground. As he went there was applause. Zidane has spent a lot of time there over the last two and a half years, as elegant as he was when he played, and there was something in that smile – familiar, disarming – and in the response.

His departure was, Pérez said, “absolutely unexpected” but, while it may sound odd, victory over Liverpool made it easier; it helped make it right. “How hard it is to say goodbye to Madrid,” Álvaro Arbeloa commented. “No one ever did it better.”

If the question is why did Zidane walk away, the answer is, in part, simple: because he could. This way the decision was his; he could control the moment, the way it happened, the feeling as he walked out. He left on his terms and at the top. Remember me like this, a European champion as a manager, just as he was when he played, just as he was when he was the assistant to Carlo Ancelotti. Zidane has never not won the European Cup as manager.

Zidane with his wife Veronique and his sons Theo and Elyaz after winning the Champions League in 2016. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images
Zidane with his wife Veronique and his sons Theo and Elyaz after winning the Champions League in 2016. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images

“You’re going but your legacy can never be erased,” Sergio Ramos said. The day Zidane took over he was asked what constitutes success. “Winning everything,” he said. Three years on he has. With nine titles in total, one every 16 games on average, this is the most successful period in Real’s modern history. No manager has matched this – even at Real no manager has won three European Cups. It does not get any better.

Zidane knew it could have got worse, much worse. He feared it would and he does not like losing. He knows it is remarkable to have reached this point and to have got here with such goodwill, universally admired. Few Real managers have been as well liked by those on the outside.

The elegance and the timidity, the grace and the apparently effortless, always hid the fact Zidane saw himself above all as a competitor. When he retired as a player, he later admitted, that he did so earlier than he originally imagined: Real had not won anything for three years, their worst run in half a century, and he felt responsible for that. He was tired of it all, sure, but he might have held on had he not experienced failure from within. “I wanted to transmit serenity, work, commitment,” he said, “but there is a moment when, after three years, it is hard to keep doing what you do. I want to win and, if I don’t see clearly that we’re going to keep on winning, then it is best to change and not do anything stupid.”

He described the decision as for everyone’s benefit. “After three years [Real]need another discourse, another working methodology, and that’s why I took this decision,” he said. “I think it’s the moment to go and I also think the players need a change. They’re the ones who fight on the pitch. It’s not easy for them; it’s a demanding club, a club with a huge history and the players are always squeezed, we always want more and more and there is a moment when you think: ‘Well, what more can I ask of my players?’”

But there was more to it than that. He knew, too, of the doubts he can never quite shake off, about the precariousness of the manager’s role at the Bernabéu; he knew some doubted his weight in all this success – and not just from outside the club. There was something a little pointed when, on the eve of the final, he said: “I’m not the best tactical coach.” He cannot be unaware of the criticisms made of him during a season in which Real finished 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganés. That defeat hurt, he admitted; it was his “worst moment”.

Although he would not reveal the moment in which his mind was made up, he implied the defeat that night was significant. “I felt – I’m not going to say the word, but you know,” Zidane said. “There are complicated moments in the season when you ask: ‘Am I still the right person?’ I don’t forget the hard moments too. There are lovely moments and we ended with a spectacular moment but there are hard moments that make you reflect.” They make others reflect too, he knows.

Despite the three Champions League successes he said his finest moment was winning the league title – the closest there is to an objective test. The gap this season was too large. Internally the difficulties were greater than most saw. Zidane talked about the impact Real has on a manager; beyond the tranquillity there are difficulties. He was tired but not, he insisted, tired of managing per se. That contradiction felt telling. Perhaps he foresaw difficulties; he was gone before any potential storm broke.

Zidane is held aloft after the 2017 Champions League triumph. Photo: Curto De La Torre/Getty Images
Zidane is held aloft after the 2017 Champions League triumph. Photo: Curto De La Torre/Getty Images

“I might be wrong,” he conceded, but that is unlikely. There was surprisingly little joy at the end of the European Cup final, a moment marked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale saying they wanted to go. Instead it was Zidane who did. Post-game he did not express that, if the decision was already made, which it may well not have been.

His resignation came on the morning he was due to talk about planning for the new season. He had resisted signings before, publicly ending the club’s pursuit of the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Kepa, and had protected his players, a union built round the dressing room; the stability within the squad has been remarkable and has been his but it could not last for ever.

This summer would be a significant one, he knew. His voice would be heard but his vote might not be deciding. It was notable the front cover of Marca this week showed four potential signings with the headline: “Do you want them, Zidane?” The wording was not coincidental: if they did not come, it would be his responsibility. Bale and Ronaldo represented another challenge, the chase of Neymar too. The task was significant and not his alone. It is more significant still now.

Real were not ready for this; Zidane, though, was. “It’s a sad day,” Pérez said. “It’s not a sad day for me,” Zidane said. – Guardian service

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