Zinedine Zidane will take charge of Real Madrid for the first time on Saturday as Deportivo La Coruna visit the Bernabeu. There was an element of panic about Florentino Perez’s decision to sack Rafa Benitez and promote Zizou to the top job this week but although the timing has surprised many, everyone closely connected to the club has known that this day has been coming for some time now.
As one of Perez’s original Galacticos and the most inspirational of the bunch, Zidane would have led Real Madrid to far more silverware than a single Spanish and European title during his 5 years playing for the club had he been part of a more balanced side.
With the Galactico policy failing to deliver the necessary results, Perez and Zidane left the club within 4 months of each other in 2006. There was though a certain inevitability that both would return in some capacity at some point though given Perez’s financial clout and Zidane’s legendary status with the Madrid giants.
After retiring from the game Zidane took some time out to pursue charity work and reflect on a glittering career but one that had ended in disgrace with his head-butt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 FIFA World Cup final, his final act as a professional footballer. While it only added to his reputation as a flawed genius, it did little to detract from his popularity at the Santiago Bernabeu and he retained close ties with the club during the following years, regularly turning out in matches for the Real Madrid veterans side.
However it wasn’t until the return of Perez in the summer of 2009 that his path to the Bernabeu hotseat really began to take shape. The returning president immediately announced the return of Zidane in an informal advisory role and within a fortnight Los Blancos had embarked on the biggest spending spree in the history of football by breaking the world transfer record twice in 4 days to bring in first Kaka and then Cristiano Ronaldo. Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema followed later that summer as over €300million was invested in new players and the foundations were in place for Real Madrid’s return to being a major player in Europe after several barren years in the Champions League.
While Zidane’s role was limited in all this, his presence at the club, however small during this significant period of transition was significant and all those players would have arrived with the undeniable aura of Zidane lingering around the place and the utmost respect for the man who had played the pivotal role in delivering Real Madrid’s most recent European crown.
His next step up the ladder came in November 2010 when supposedly at the request of the recently appointed Jose Mourinho, Zidane was appointed special adviser to Real Madrid’s first team. The role was again relatively unofficial but would see him have a more hands-on influence at the club and which included working alongside Mourinho and with the Real Madrid squad from time to time.
Zidane was a key figure in securing the signing of Raphael Varane from Lens in June 2011 and was soon appointed the club’s new Sporting Director, his first position of genuine responsibility since quitting the game. Although Mourinho is said to have helped spark the switch after he fell out with Jorge Valdano, who had held the role during his first season in charge, Perez was becoming increasingly eager for Zidane to take on a more significant position and he got his wish.
He was gradually exposing Zidane to roles of greater importance in differing areas of the football club and was building his experience and knowledge in the anticipation that one day he would graduate into the top job. That still seemed a fair way off however with the legendary midfielder seemingly reluctant to get into coaching at that point.
On his appointment as Sporting Director, Zidane stated ‘Real Madrid is the most important thing that happened to me, both as a footballer and as a person. And I will continue to work with the club because it is the best’. As an extremely determined man but one of few words, there was no doubting he meant it and at that point it seemed obvious that whatever his future was to hold, it was going to be at the club where he had finished his playing career and really risen to be the most prominent player of his generation.
Florentino Perez, renowned as a man of little patience was showing a rare example of long-term planning and faith in one individual and the only question seemed to be whether or not Zidane would want to follow the path into coaching and ultimately management.
By his 2nd year as Sporting Director, Zidane’s influence was growing and significantly he had begun to dabble in coaching for the first time, involving himself with 1st team training sessions. That though was something which several news outlets in the Spanish capital reported to have not gone down well with Mourinho and may even have played a role in his departure at the end of the campaign.
Zizou also spent plenty of time working with the Real Madrid youth teams at various age groups during that year, further broadening his experience and intrinsic knowledge of one of the world’s biggest football clubs. With a taste for coaching, the next logical step was for Zidane to get involved on a day-to-day basis with the first-team by becoming an Assistant coach.
After the departure of Mourinho, for Perez it was as much a question of finding someone who Zidane would be willing to work with as it was a question of finding someone willing to come in and work with Zidane.
Carlo Ancelotti was the perfect and perhaps only fit. Zizou had starred under Ancelotti at Juventus as a player and stated on his appointment that the Italian was the only man who he would have been prepared to work as an Assistant Manager to. It was another sign of Zidane’s growing influence at the club and also of Perez’s almost extraordinary willingness to accommodate the Frenchman in whatever way he could.
By this point it was clear to all and sundry that Florentino Perez regarded Zidane as a future Real Madrid Head Coach and the final stepping stone to the position came when in the summer of 2014 he became boss of Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s reserve side who play in the 3rd tier of Spanish football.
With the shackles finally off, the final and by far most significant step would prove the most challenging for Zidane, who initially struggled in his first role in management. One issue was his lack of coaching badges for which at one point the Spanish Coaching Federation attempted to suspend him from his new role. Real Madrid appealed in the Spanish Courts and won their case but although it was an unhelpful distraction, it was by no means Zizou’s only problem.
Issues were also cropping up on the training field and on matchdays which suggested Zidane had struggled to adapt to his first role in sole charge and away from the safety net of Ancelotti. His mentor, experienced French manager Guy Lacombe suggested Zidane was struggling to enforce himself and communicate with his players in training and Castilla, who were expected to push for promotion won just 1 of their opening 6 matches.
Things briefly improved after that and a change in system helped Castilla soar up the table but the arrival of Norwegian teenager Martin Odegaard in January seemed to have an unsettling impact on the side and a 6th place finish meant Castilla would spend another season in the 3rd tier and that Zidane’s graduation to the top job would have to wait for at least another year.
The sacking of Carlo Ancelotti resulted in Florentino Perez for the first time overlooking Zidane and instead appointing Rafa Benitez as the new boss, even though the Frenchman had stated he would have taken the job if it had been offered.
It was understandable given that Zidane was clearly still a ‘work in progress’ as a manager but it for the first time raised doubts as to whether or not Perez’s grand plan to install his most trusted Galactico as manager would ever come to fruition given he had clearly been schooled to be Ancelotti’s successor.
The arrival of Benitez never had the feel of a good fit for the club or for the strategy of preparing Zidane for the role. If Benitez did well and delivered silverware then it would have left Zidane with an awkward dilemma as to whether to do the almost unthinkable and leave Real Madrid to cut his teeth in management elsewhere or remain with Castilla and patiently await his chance at the Bernabeu. There was also the question for Perez of how he would react if Zidane failed to improve Castilla in his Second season in the job and whether he would have to abandon the plan altogether.
As it turned out a series of circumstances would lead to Zidane’s appointment far sooner than either party could have anticipated. The struggles of Rafa Benitez’s side and a series of off-field gaffs by the club had increased the pressure on Perez and in the face of calls for his resignation, he finally had reason to promote Zidane to the position of Head Coach beyond his long-held and almost unwavering faith in the man.
Sacking Benitez and bringing in a club legend would instantly lift the mood at the Bernabeu, which has become angry on numerous occasions during the past few months, most notably following Real Madrid’s humiliating 4-0 defeat to Barcelona in El Clasico.
Zidane was also showing signs of improvement in his 2nd year with the Reserves and leaves them in 2nd place in their section of the Segunda B and with Perez’s future in question it was almost becoming a case of ‘now or never’ in terms of his long-held vision to make Zinedine Zidane his Head Coach.
It was a gamble worth taking perhaps more motivated by selfish interests than footballing ones but it was by no means a knee-jerk, spur of the moment decision. Florentino Perez has been planning for this day for many years and when Zinedine Zidane takes his place in the home dug-out at the Bernabeu on Saturday it will represent the realisation of his grand plan.
It will also be the start of an era which depending on Zidane’s success will either lead to an inglorious end to Florentino Perez’s long involvement at Real Madrid or the salvation of a reputation that has become severely tarnished over the past 12 months.
Over to you Zizou.