And so, Zinedine Zidane exits stage left, of his own accord and for the second time in three years. You have to go back nearly a quarter of a century to find the last Real Madrid manager who said “no mas” and willingly made his way out of the Santiago Bernabeu without being pushed out or chased out. That was Fabio Capello in 1997, and the world was a very different place back then.
The circumstances were very different, too. Capello had taken over the previous summer, after dominating in Europe and in Serie A with Milan, and by the spring, after a roller-coaster campaign, announced he’d be gone in May. He still won the title, and, in any case, he knew he had his old job back waiting for him back at the San Siro.
The same is not true for Zidane. Nobody knows what the great stone face has planned next — most likely not even Zidane, beyond a couple weeks (or more) of relaxation. But then, if there’s somebody — perhaps more than anybody else in the world of football — who doesn’t need to know, it’s him. That’s what happens when you’re unique. In football, certainly. Possibly in the rest of the team sport universe, too.
The Spanish daily Marca described Zidane as the most important figure in the history of Real Madrid, alongside Alfredo Di Stefano and Florentino Perez, the current president. Which, given the size and scope of the club we’re talking about, is a little bit like being called the most important figure in the history of Marxism alongside Karl Marx, or the most important figure in the history of McDonald’s alongside Ray Kroc.
Too much? Maybe, but maybe not when you consider that, in four full seasons and parts of two others, he has delivered three Champions League titles and two Liga crowns. Yes, it’s Real Madrid, you’re a super club and you’re expected to win, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s vastly outperformed many other Madrid managers. Since Vicente Del Bosque left in 2003, Zidane has won 75 percent of the club’s Champions Leagues and 40 percent of their league titles. All in just 1,685 days on the job.
All of this is to say that Zidane’s place in managerial history is secure and has been for some time. (His place in footballing history, of course, was secured many, many years ago.) He’s not in this for ego, ambition or money. He does it because he enjoys it, because he loves the club and because he thinks he can help. It’s not a coincidence that a full eight years passed between the headbutt that ended his playing career in the 2006 World Cup final and his first stint as a manager, taking charge of Real Madrid’s B-team in 2014. He wasn’t in any rush; he wanted to learn before taking the plunge, to see if he liked it and if he was good at it.
Well, we found out, and we didn’t just find out that he was a pretty good Real Madrid manager, but also that he was a low-key one, with a style that set him apart from most of his peers.
From the perspective of his boss, Florentino Perez, Zidane is what you might call an easy employee and a company man. He willingly came in midway through the season to rescue campaigns that were falling apart after two of Florentino’s hand-picked appointments — Rafa Benitez in January 2016 and Julen Lopetegui (after the Santiago Solari interim stint) in March 2019 — royally struggled.
Zidane didn’t go public with wild demands for signings and investments and, to be fair, he didn’t get many. The highest profile signings during his second stint in charge were Eden Hazard, Ferland Mendy, Luka Jovic and Eder Militao, and only the first was a household name. During his first, other than Thibaut Courtois, it was a bunch of returning loans and youngsters. Contrast this with the big names the club was bringing in for some of his predecessors, like Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.
Nor did Zidane embarrass the club with his behaviour (like one former manager who springs to mind) or sow internal discord in the dressing room (yep, same guy). This was the closest he came to losing his cool. In fact, it’s probably as angry as he’s gotten, at least in public, since he did this.
So why is he quitting?
Zidane will, no doubt, give his reasons. Last time around, he said he has worn out. But he also said — and this is telling — that “Real Madrid needs a change, another way of working, another idea, if we are to continue winning. I feel it’s going to be difficult to continue winning. And because I’m a winner, I’m going.”
In many ways, that applies here too. Zidane kept this team afloat — winning La Liga last season, reaching the Champions League semifinal and competing until the final day this season — by somehow running on fumes following a horrific stint of injuries and a lack of A-list signings (fit ones, anyway).
He forcibly reinvented his approach to make it more defensive, experimented with different schemes and formations, and squeezed as much as he could out of his veteran core: Courtois at the back, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric in midfield, Karim Benzema up front. They didn’t play the football he wanted to play; they played the football they needed to play, the football that, to be sure, few successful teams play these days.
Zidane knows all of this, and he likely knows that this team needs an overhaul, both in terms of philosophy and personnel. The band-aid of a single superstar signing — they tried that with Hazard… he got hurt and it didn’t work — isn’t going to work, even if it’s, say, Kylian Mbappe, for more than a year or two.
The question is whether he feels like he’s the man to do it. Staying means building a new side from the ground up in the next two seasons, and phasing out the likes of Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos, Modric, Benzema… guys he went to war with, guys who gave him everything. It’s a huge ask and it’s a difficult, draining ask — particularly for a team that is a billion dollars in debt and can’t spend its way out of the hole this time. Particularly post-COVID, particularly for a man who has never faced a job like this; in the past, it was about coming in, fixing a few things and getting the most out of the talent that was already there.
You can’t blame him for saying no. If there’s one person at Real Madrid who has earned the right to talk away, it’s Zizou. Besides, if things go sour for the next manager, you know he’s just going to be a phone call away…