Living legend in Madrid: what does the future hold for Zinédine Zidane the manager?


Never have the opening lyrics of the Himno de la Décima, the song made in celebration of Real Madrid’s 10th European Cup, been more applicable. They can be translated as History that you have made, history to be made. Perhaps lyrics that will circle in the head of Real Madrid’s new manager, the 11th under club president Florentino Pérez, Zinédine Zidane. The 43-year-old Frenchman, who has signed a two-and-a-half-year deal, will succeed Rafael Benítez, after the 55-year-old Spaniard was sacked after just seven months and one day with the club.

Whilst the onset of Madrid’s problems is difficult to pinpoint, the issues that Zidane will attempt to rectify are as prominent as ever. José Mourinho’s tenure at Chelsea ended due to an accumulation of factors, a situation that was not all that dissimilar from the current circumstances at the Santiago Bernabéu.

Actions on the field which consequently influenced off-field events underpinned tumultuous managerial reigns, the Eva Carneiro incident for Mourinho and the Denis Cheryshev debacle, which saw Los Blancos kicked out of the Copa del Rey after the 25-year-old was fielded against Cádiz rather than serving a suspension after accruing three bookings in the competition whilst on loan at Villarreal last season, was a real nadir for Benítez.

Preceding their expulsion from Spain’s most famous club competition, Los Merengues suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat at home to Barcelona in the first Clásico of the season, and despite consistently eclipsing their Catalan counterparts in commercial matters, Luis Enrique’s side currently seem better equipped and crucially in better form to retain La Liga and the Champions League.

To compound matters, their star-studded line-up have had to contend with other distractions. Whilst transfer talk regarding Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale is rife, Karim Benzema has become embroiled in the Mathieu Valbuena blackmail case. Tactically, Madrid’s haphazard defending has emerged as a result of the players’ positional uncertainty, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić proving adequate examples as hesitant central midfielders.

Casemiro, Isco and Jesé were criminally underused by Benítez, hopefully something that Zidane will set right by levelling the playing field, or at least as much as is possible at such a powerhouse of club football. Isco and Jesé were two of the seven players that the Spanish national daily sport newspaper MARCA claimed “showed differences publically with the manager”, and whilst Bale is said to be upset by Benítez’s sacking, one of Zidane’s greatest challenges will be to what extent he restores tranquillity within a squad of irrepressible egos.

Very few will bewail the loss of Benítez, but his relationship with his Galácticos was not an unfamiliar one. Marco Materazzi, the player Zidane head-butted in the 2006 World Cup Final on the way to seeing red, told Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport that the Spaniard “always has the same problems with his players”. Hardly a vote of confidence for the former Liverpool and Valencia manager.   

Nevertheless, the task that has presented itself to the first Frenchman to ever manage the Spanish capital’s largest club could enable Zidane to follow in the footsteps of a manager who will be on the move in the summer, Pep Guardiola. This is the opinion of Zidane’s former France teammate Bixente Lizarazu, but there is a dearth of such confidence from the public. Exactly 80% of those who voted in a poll run by Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo deemed his lack of experience a major concern, whilst 58% of voters in The Daily Telegraph’s latest poll believe success will evade him at Madrid.

Surprisingly however, elements of the club’s 114-year history may serve as inspiration to a rather introvert character. The last time Pérez dismissed a manager mid-season was in the 2005-06 season, when Madrid, having sacked Vanderlei Luxemburgo, managed to achieve second place in the table under the guidance of Juan Ramón López Caro.

Zidane is adored in France not just for his contribution to the national side but also for his shy and reticent personality. Nevertheless, the Materazzi incident, in addition to his attack on Luis Enrique in 2003, which will undoubtedly do the rounds on Twitter again when the next Clásico is on the horizon, demonstrate his rather short bursts of impetuous behaviour. The club can ill-afford such petulance if their fortunes are to follow an upward trajectory.

Just before Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw at the Mestalla against Valencia, which proved to be Benítez’s last game, a banner with the message “Rafa, you gave us the best days of our lives. Thank you” was held up. Unsurprisingly, it was from the Valencia faithful.

If Zidane can galvanize Madrid, temper their resolve to see out games such as Valencia away, and coax the hostile and insatiable Spanish commentriat into supporting his side, the echoes of José Mourinho’s name may just die down, just as they have at Old Trafford. Neither a disciplinarian like Mourinho or Van Gaal or someone to have a laissez-faire approach, few will begrudge Zidane’s situation. Nevertheless, almost ten years after retiring from the game, this may just be the most exciting yet daunting challenge that any of the game’s former greats have faced.  

Zinédine Zidane made history at Real Madrid with la Novena, now he must guide Los Blancos to la Undécima.

Photograph: Raphaël Labbé via Flickr


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