BY ONUR BILGIC
July 9th, 2006. Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. The 110th minute of the World Cup final.
A short dialogue takes place between Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi. Zidane then strikes Materazzi’S chest hard with his head. While referee Horacio Elizondo does not see the event first-hand, he shows Zidane the red card upon being warned by his assistant and the French star has to leave the field. The photo capturing Zidane walking past the World Cup trophy as he leaves the field makes for one of the most striking sporting images of that year or indeed any other.
For the great Zidane, the last professional game of his career had begun well. In just the seventh minute he put France ahead against Italy, giving hope that he could emulate the heroics of eight years earlier and the 1998 World Cup final in Paris, where the post-match cheers of “Zizou” accompanied his image being beamed onto the city’s famous landmarks. However, he only saw red – literally and figuratively – and the fairytale ending to one of the game’s great stories was cut from the pages before it could be written.
10-man France made it to the penalty shoot-out of course, but once Fabio Grosso scored the decisive spot-kick, the generation that had brought France the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 triumphs had run it’s race. Time was up for Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Viera. But most importantly, there would no longer be Zinedine Zidane.
The following day, as the Italian players celebrated with their ecstatic fans in Rome, the French players were received quietly by Jacques Chirac in Paris. The president held a private meeting with Zidane and said about him: “He is a true footballing genius and decides with his heart. This is why the French people love him so.” On the morning of July 10th a new chapter began in Zidane’s life. From then on, others would pull on the number 10 shirt for the French national team. Just like they did after Michel Platini called it a day. And at his club, Real Madrid, a new superstar would have to fill the void in the hearts of the Bernabeu’s adoring fans.
That exchange with Materazzi has often been talked about. Lip reading experts agreed that Materazzi had insulted Zidane and his family. To the provocateur went the spoils while Zidane was cast as the man who would not take an insult lightly. Match lost but honour preserved? Maybe. While Materazzi later apologised to Zidane, it was not accepted. His words had cost Zidane and France the World Cup.
Zidane spent his first few years after professional football kicking about in amateur tournaments, indoor football and charity matches. These events were generally for the benefit of international organisations like UNICEF and the United Nations and Zidane was one of the biggest draws at them.
Many believed that someone of the calibre and experience of Zidane would be a loss to the game just doing this and for a while at least, he refused to get involved seriously with coaching, preferring instead to devote his time to other things.
When Florentino Perez conceived the first Galacticos project in 2000, Zidane was the second player to join Real Madrid after Luis Figo, and arguably made the biggest contribution of that stellar group to the club’s fabled history. The president must have identified qualities in Zidane other than merely those of a great football player and so he was offered a role as one of his consultants in 2009 during the building of the second iteration of the Galacticos. It seemed a natural fit.
After 2009/10 – the first season of the new project – ended without success, Real Madrid appointed Jose Mourinho, a Galactico manager if you like, as head coach. During Mourinho’s period in charge Zidane continued to work as an advisor both for the team and to the club. He was present at the game day meetings, training and club negotiations; as it turned out it was an unofficial apprenticeship for the top job.
Mourinho managed the team for three years, but failed to meet expectations. The Portuguese was let go after the 2012-13 season brought no silverware and unseemly disputes with senior dressing personalities Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas. He was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, who was significant for Zidane, the pair having worked together briefly at Juventus some years earlier.
When the experienced Italian was introduced to the press as the new manager of Real Madrid on June 26th, 2013, Zidane was present. Ancelotti commented, “I’m sure he’ll make a good assistant. He’ll be with me at the club. The only problem is he won’t play.” As for Zidane, he said about his new position: “I’ve done many different things after I stopped playing, but I began to feel the need to do what energised me throughout my life. What I love: football.”
While things did not go well in the league, winning the Copa del Rey and obtaining La Decima (a tenth European Cup/Champions League victory) ensured that Zidane once more played a significant hand in Real Madrid’s history. The way he directed the players during the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid, with Ancelotti’s approval, illustrated that Zizou had been ready for the job since the beginning.
After the 2013-14 season it was decided that Zidane would coach Castilla, Real Madrid’s reserve team, while Fernando Hierro would replace him as assistant to Ancelotti. He had gone through his time as consultant and assistant manager and was now in full charge of the team at Castilla. This was a significant challenge and a new beginning for Zidane. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique had first coached Barcelona B, before going on to become some of the best managers in Europe. If he could prove himself at Castilla, the next stop would likely be Real Madrid.
During his first six weeks at Castilla, the team won just once. After a change of tactics, and helped by the transfer of Guillermo Varela, the team managed to win 37 points in 16 weeks, going top of the league. However, Zidane faced a problem: his coaching licence was not adequate for managing Castilla. The harsh rules of the Spanish Football Federation had similarly caused problems for Johan Cruyff when he first arrived at Barcelona. After a period of controversy, Zidane was suspended for three months and could not be involved with the team. Without him, Castilla lost momentum, finishing 6th and outside of the play-off zone by two points. However, a new opportunity presented itself to Zidane.
Following a barren 2014-15 season for the first team, Florentino Perez decided that Real Madrid needed to turn another page and replaced Ancelotti with Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard had a history of success in La Liga and the Champions League, but came with baggage – and question marks – attached.
He became controversial as early as August with poor performances in friendly games and unsatisfactory transfers. Although September and October went well for Real Madrid, problems on and off the field that began in November would gradually spell the end of Benitez. The 0-4 loss to Barcelona at Santiago Bernabeu, the scandal during the Cadiz game, the loss in form of Cristiano Ronaldo and the ensuing shipping of league points meant an early departure for Benitez. It was one of the longest drawn out sackings in modern football. The Marca newspaper, the closest source to Real Madrid, ran a survey on December 24th 2015 and asked the readers who they would like to see coaching the team. Although Jose Mourinho – who by then was at Chelsea – was a possibility, fans wanted to see a new man. The survey revealed 53 per cent support for Zinedine Zidane. The supporters had spoken and once Benitez was finally put out of his misery a couple of weeks later, it seemed only one man would suffice if they were to salvage something from a dismal situation.
During his term as club president, Florentino Perez worked with many players, managers and administrators. Luis Figo, David Beckham, Jose Mourinho, and Jorge Valdano were just some of them. However, the signing of Zidane in 2001 was perhaps the most significant of them all, and when he was given the responsibility of reviving Real Madrid in January 2016, Perez gushed to a press conference at Santiago Bernabeu: “Zidane, this is your club and your stadium. You always have our confidence and support.”
Speaking after Perez, Zidane said: “Today is an important day for me. I’m even more excited than on the day I signed for Real Madrid as a player. I will put my soul and heart out to succeed.”
He did just that.