Madrid has promoted former players—Miguel Muñoz, Luis Molowny, Alfredo di Stéfano and Vicente del Bosque—to coach over the years.
When Zinedine Zidane was presented as the new head coach of Real Madrid on January 4, it had the trappings of a coronation rather than the hiring of a soccer manager.
Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, briefly stated that the board had decided to dismiss Rafael Benítez, the outgoing coach whom Perez described as “an absolute professional and a wonderful person”.
Then, turning to Zidane, Perez said, “This is your club, this is your stadium. And, you have all our support. From this moment, you are the trainer of Madrid. I know that for you the word ‘impossible’ doesn’t exist.”
And with that, and a few words of acceptance from Zidane, the news conference was over. No questions were allowed, but photographers were invited to take a family snapshot of Zidane, his wife Véronique and their four sons on the podium.
On January 5, Zidane’s first day of work with the players, the training grounds were to be thrown open to the public and the 80,000 or so “socios,” the members who, in theory, own the great club.
The succession had been brewing from the start after Benítez replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last June. It had elements of player unrest, but results—particularly the 4-0 humiliation of Madrid at its own stadium in November against Barcelona—exacerbated Benítez’s unstable situation.
To lose to Barcelona is bad enough. To be taken apart in the Clásico by such a score, against a Barcelona team in which Lionel Messi could only play a cameo role after an injury, brought out the white handkerchiefs from the fans, the ultimate sign of disapproval from Madrid’s supporters.
The president called for calm and patience—after all, “Rafa” had only been Madrid’s coach for half a season.
But a 1-0 loss to Villarreal in December, followed by a 2-2 tie at Valencia, brought the swift end, and a reported $10 million buyout to Benítez.
“We have the best club in the world, and the best fan base,” Zidane said in his acceptance speech in Madrid. “I feel more emotion now than when I signed as a player, but from tomorrow I am going to put my heart into doing all I can for this club. I want to ensure a trophy by the end of the season.”
That will be his minimal requirement. Barcelona won five trophies in 2015, and this to some extent is Madrid’s “Guardiola moment,” a response to when the Catalan club promoted Pep Guardiola, a former player, to coach in 2008. Guardiola’s team won every trophy in club soccer, but more than that, it won in a style that even Madrid can only envy.
Madrid itself had promoted former players—among them Miguel Muñoz, Luis Molowny, Alfredo di Stéfano and Vicente del Bosque—to coach over the years.
Di Stéfano was a reference point in the family of the current club president. Pérez’s father, a lifelong member of Real Madrid, once teased his son, saying that while Zidane was the finest star in Real’s more modern galaxy of players, he never could emulate the great Alfredo.
Judgment is always subjective. Zidane, or Zizou, did well enough, crowning his five years at the Bernabeu with one of the most spectacular goals ever seen—a thigh-high volley in the 2002 Champions League final to win against Bayer Leverkusen.
Great players do not always make great coaches. Zidane had extraordinary leadership skills on the field, but sometimes a player who does superb things by instinct is not the best man to teach lesser mortals the arts of the game.
Zidane’s natural ability has always had a hypnotic attraction, right from the day he was spotted playing on the back streets of Marseille among other French-born children of Algerian descent.
With good reason, Zidane is revered among the all-time great Muslim athletes, along with Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Pakistan cricket great Imran Khan.
A quiet, subdued personality and a family man, Zidane was the inspiration behind France’s winning the 1998 World Cup, yet he was seen as the villain of the 2006 World Cup final when he was red carded for head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest.
A sculpture of that head butt, cast in bronze and displayed in Paris, and later in Doha, became a symbol of the almost hidden Zidane, a gentleman as a player until provoked by insults.
The kicks he would take—and then humiliate the opponent with his movement and control and wonderful talent. The insult, though, brought to the surface a rage buried in the often silent dignity of the man.
Pérez never was a player, but he is a construction mogul in Madrid, who in two spells as Real president has been a star gazer. He chooses as many stars as money can buy and runs through the coaches hoping to find one who can pull together the array of talents provided by Madrid’s great wealth.
The so-called Galácticos policy of Perez presents the same challenge seen by team after team in sport after sport: It has talents everywhere, but it needs a master coach to fit them together.
Benítez was given 18 league games to get his philosophy across. He won 11, drew four and lost three — and became the 11th coach discarded by Perez in 12 years.
The Zidane era got off to a flying start on January 10, with Real’s 5-0 win against Deportivo La Coruña at home. Karem Benzema scored twice and Gareth Bale provided the fireworks with a hat-trick.