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In a Class of His Own: A Tribute To Zinedine Zidane

Merci, Gracias, Thank you—you have made us believe in impossible dreams.

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

“I would also like to announce that the Real Madrid Board of Directors have decided to name Zinedine Zidane as the new coach of the first team.” Florentino Perez words rang through the halls of the Santiago Bernabéu and reverberated through the world’s media. January 4th, 2016 would turn out to be a pivotal day in Madrid’s history. It was the second coming of Zidane, this time as a Manager. The matrimony between man and club was official. Zidane and Real Madrid. Real Madrid and Zidane. The two will always be synonymous. “Throughout his whole life, Zidane has shown an ability to meet football’s greatest challenges, and has always tackled them with dedication and talent. Zinedine Zidane, this is your stadium and this is your club”. Looking back now, there is a sense of fatalism to Florentino’s words. What came next was an unprecedented nine titles in two and a half years: three consecutive Champions League titles, a La Liga title, two Club World Cups, two European Super Cups, and one Spanish Cup. Couple those titles with the adoration of the players, president, board, and fans— it was meant to be, wasn’t it? The Frenchman embodies the values of Madrid—a winning spirit, señorío: a gentleman or a sportsman, excellence, the club and the collective above the individual, and a never-say-die attitude. He projected those values on to his team and produced historic results.

Even the most fervent Real Madrid supporters recognized the doubts and skepticism behind the appointment. “Zidane the manager” was a phrase filled more with hope than optimism. The Frenchman had managed Real Madrid Castilla earning inconsistent results. In no uncertain terms, his managerial CV was lacking. He had a tall task in-front of him. Former Madrid manager, Rafa Benitez, had lost the trust of senior members of the Real Madrid dressing room, failed to produce fluid, attacking football, and was trailing behind leaders Atletico Madrid and Barcelona after losing the Clasico 4-0 in Madrid. The team was in disarray. Many supporters feared Zidane would tarnish his mythical reputation. After all, it was Real Madrid—ruthless in their pursuit of perfection—just ask all of Florentino’s former managerial appointments.

Nobody would have imagined what happened next, nobody but Zidane. His humility and class oozed from every word spoke during a press conference and his body language on the touch line represented the physical form of each. Simply put, Zidane’s mythical aura never faded. There was a quiet enduring confidence which hid within a stoic and calm exterior. That confidence and relentless positive attitude was the driving force behind the collective success. “I’m always positive, never negative ...I’ll never throw in the towel and will keep fighting and never surrender”. He believed and always remained positive thus his team did the same.

Within the first six months, Zidane reinvigorated the team. Fans faith was restored. Often forgotten during Zidane’s managerial reign, was the nearly unfathomable La Liga comeback. The team had clawed their way back from an 11 point deficit to match Barcelona on the final day of the season at the top of the table. What was written off in January had been resurrected by May. Ultimately Barcelona would win the league by one point, but Madrid still had a mouthwatering prospect in front of them— the Champions League Final. It would be cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid again the foe, with managerial nemesis, Diego Simeone, dying for revenge. After 120 minutes of gameplay, penalties decided the outcome. Madrid would win and Zidane’s managerial legacy began laying the foundations. “This won’t be the last” he told Florentino that night in Milan—truer words had never been spoken.

Many tried to push off the Frenchman’s quick success labeling the Champions League run as easy, the La Liga turnaround as a Barca collapse, and the good results as just a matter of having talented players. How did Zidane respond? With more titles. A double: La Liga and Champions League titles followed in his second season (first full season in charge). Something Madrid had not achieved for 59 years, back in 1958. On top of all that, he was also the first manager to win back to back Champions League titles in the modern era.

“You know where you are, as Real Madrid coach, you know the expectations are very high,” Zidane said. “I like that, I lived it as a player, I won everything with this club, with this jersey, but to win La Liga as coach is different, it is the maximum.” Being first after 38 games, for me it is the happiest day of my professional life, for sure. When the season starts you think the most important day to day is La Liga. So there are no words to describe it. Inside I am very, very happy.” Zidane always reiterates the importance of winning the La Liga title. That title, more than any other, proved to him that he was the manager he thought he was. His success was a direct result of his methods and hard work—a 9 month season was proof.

By Zidane’s third season, it was his team. Arguably his toughest task was ahead of him—to continue winning. He set the highest of standards, even by Real Madrid’s expectations. After blowing away Manchester United in the European Super Cup and following suit with a dismantlement of Barcelona in the Spanish Cup, Madrid fans could not contain their excitement for what felt like a dominant era. The euphoria would quickly be tampered as opposing coaches began finding flaws in Zidane’s system and the results in La Liga were disastrous. Oddly enough, Zidane was placed in a similar scenario to Rafa Benitez two years earlier. By the time January had rolled around, La Liga seemed lost and the point deficit was too large. Everything came down to the Champions League. His job, his legacy, and his love affair with the club and its fans may have been tainted and lost had anything but a win vs PSG emerged. The body of work, two seasons worth, was now judged on a single knockout tie. The immense pressure did not change Zidane. He worked in the same manner, with the same positive attitude and tranquil demeanor. It’s because of this, that he is more than a coach in the eyes of many. He’s a role model on how to act and lead in times of immense pressure. His cool, calm, and classy demeanor is why so many love him and it feeds his mythical status.

Unlike any Madrid manager before him, Zidane had control. He had earned respect and earned the right to make the tough calls. Florentino Perez has never been so gracious with a manger before, but the relationship between the two is impenetrable. Zidane called the shots. When the summer rolled around, unlike so many transfer windows before, there were no big names brought to the club. It was all about stability and succession planning. Zidane laid the fruits for Madrid’s future success in purchasing and recalling the likes of Asensio, Vallejo, Marcos Llorente, Achraf, Theo, and more. Others like Odeegard, Febas, Valverde, and Sergio Diaz who had worked under Zidane at Castilla were secured to long-term contracts and loaned out to grow, and one day, possibly return.

Above all, Zidane was loyal to his men. To sell Cristiano was never an option. To give up on a talent like Benzema, someone Zidane viewed as a little brother, was out of the question. Bring in a new goalkeeper to replace Keylor Navas— nonsense to Zidane. Like many Frenchman, he was stubborn, but stubborn for all the right reasons. He was a man of his word and if he told a player they were a part of his plans and they were important, there would be no contradicting that in the way of transfers. The outpour of messages of gratitude from each player since Zidane’s announcement to step down is a testament to his relationship with the players. The authentic and emotional embraces seen after each Champions League triumph further backs the claim. He has revolutionized the modern game. Zidane’s man-management and confidence in all 25 squad players has been unparalleled at football’s top level. He has written the script for future coaches and future generations.

Zidane has now twice managed to do what so few can—retire at Real Madrid as a player and step down, on top, as a Real Madrid manager rather than get sacked. He’s etched his name into our history books time and time again both as player and manager. Is there a better pair, than Real Madrid and Zidane? Nine trophies over his two and a half year reign, spending only €70M, giving debuts to 12 Madrid players, utilizing 39 under his guidance. He leaves undefeated at the Camp Nou and having never once lost a Champions League knockout tie. “I love this club so much and also the President that gave me the opportunity to play for this grand club. I will be grateful for the rest of my life”. No Zidane, we the fans, are grateful. Merci, Gracias, Thank you—you have made us believe in impossible dreams.

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