Who can forget the infamous sight of Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, a final that his beloved France would go on to lose? It was a disgraceful and ignominious ending for a player who normally let his football do the talking. Zidane’s invention, skill, and vision made him one of the most recognisable players on the planet. It also propelled him to the Bernabeu, where in 2001, as an undisputed ‘Galactico’ he arrived amidst a flurry of excitement. Real Madrid had just made the Frenchman the then most expensive footballer, coughing up £46m for his services. The Spanish giants also incidentally lay claim to the five most expensive transfers ever.
Zidane began his career at Cannes, where, tipped for big things, he honed his craft. Stops at Bordeaux and Juventus followed before he landed in Madrid where his impact could not have been more keenly felt as he plundered the winner in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen at Glasgow’s Hampden Park. Nicknamed ‘Zizou’ and adored the world over, this was a superstar if ever there was one.
Former teammates quickly played down suggestions that Zidane was not the right fit for Real Madrid, a club accustomed to swapping managers even in today’s climate of short termism in football. David Beckham proclaimed him as the best fit for the club, and given the adulation and respect he commands it is not hard to see why. Club president Florentino Perez made it clear that this was not just his choice but rather one that the fans could get behind, a sharp contrast from the divisive Rafael Benitez who could never quite win over the fans.
Benitez can consider himself unlucky. He won 17 of 25 matches in charge, losing just three. He oversaw an 8-0 win over Malmo and an astonishing 10-2 triumph at home to Rayo Vallecano, while he seemed to strike up a good relationship with club record signing Gareth Bale. Critically though, Benitez and Real Madrid came unstuck in a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Barcelona in November. These are, after all, the games where managers are truly judged.
If Jose Mourinho often defines himself in opposition to Pep Guardiola, then this move by Real Madrid could arguably fall into the category of imitation.
Guardiola was famously appointed over Mourinho at Barcelona in 2008 to such acclaim, his first job in football management, while Zidane was certainly a surprise choice to many outsiders.
However it is clear that the club had been grooming Zidane for the role, it perhaps just came sooner than even the Frenchman could have envisaged. The 43-year-old had been working for Real Madrid Castilla since 2014 and had worked briefly as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant. This has all the hallmarks of a calculated appointment, it just happens that it comes at the expense of Benitez.
With the big-name players and enormous egos that populate the Madrid dressing room, Zidane has the difficult task of managing off-field relations as well as results on it. It is an interesting choice, but the club he now manages rarely do things in a straightforward manner. Some have labelled this a desperate attempt by Perez to salvage his presidency, but many are more intrigued to see whether Zidane can successively make the transition where so many others have failed.
His appointment is the latest chapter in an extraordinary and engrossing career. Popularity rarely counts for much in football, and as with former club favourite Ancelotti, this chapter could quickly end if things do not go to plan.
Image courtesy of Raphael Labbe.