Seven days—the amount of time that has passed since Zinedine Zidane said “Au revoir” to the Bernabeu, leaving a trail of success in his wake. The legend of Zidane remains, but what next? The world’s press has been in overdrive, attempting to pinpoint the Frenchman’s successor. Despite the surprising nature of Zidane’s decision, any institution like Real Madrid has succession plans in the waiting. A top of said list, was Mauricio Pochettino. The former Espanyol, Southampton, and current Tottenham manager checks off all the boxes: tactically astute, aesthetically pleasing-high pressing-attacking football, a native Spanish-speaker and familiarity with La Liga, an ability to nurture and promote youth talent, and a no-nonsense man management style. Mauricio has been public before in his admiration for Real Madrid and his ability to never manage Barcelona. Two more boxes checked. A match made in heaven; Madrid had the perfect rebound to Zidane. But one problem remains: Daniel Levy. The current chairman of Tottenham Hotspur Football club has a death-defying grip around his beloved manager and will not let him go. According to reports, Levy won’t bat an eye-lash, not even for €100 million. Thus, those same reports claim Mauricio Pochettino has been discarded. Even Spanish periodical, Marca, admitted defeat with the headline: “POCHETTINO DESCARTADO”. There is no certainty that Pochettino is truly off the table, but the outlook is bleak. Name after name has emerged since—from Jurgen Kloop, Liverpool’s heavy metal and high energy German, to Mauricio Sarri, Napoli’s tactically brilliant yet off-the-rocker crazy manager, and even Arsene Wenger received a shout. More recently, reports suggest Madrid have altered their course and set sail for a manager in the mold of Zidane—inexperienced, but Madrid through and through—Guti, Michel, and Hierro have all been linked.
The men leading this charge, the likes of Jose Angel Sanchez and Florentino Perez, recognize the magnitude of the job and the global force that is Real Madrid. Looking back, arguably the three most successful managers of Madrid’s long illustrious history have been former players, and importantly, “Madridista’s”. Miguel Munoz, undoubtedly one of Madrid’s greatest managers ever—lasting an astonishing 14 years at the helm, managed the likes of Di Stefano, Puskas, Eusebio and lead the team to two European Cup victories and nine La Liga titles. Munoz played for the club as well, making 347 appearances and winning three European cups and four La Liga titles. The white of the capital city ran through his veins, Munoz know the club, the players, and the president; all of the in’s and out’s. Di Stefano was famously asked, “What is Real Madrid?” his response—“It’s a feeling”. That feeling, the Madrisimo, the irrefutable link between man and club, is real. It’s rightly a factor considered when appointing a manager to greatest club in the world.
“The club knows what Real Madrid means and how the coach of Real Madrid should be. There are very clear examples in the past.” Vicente Del Bosque could very well be referring to himself, given his humility it’s unlikely, but former World Cup winning coach subtly reiterates the importance of knowing the idiosyncrasies of the club. Del Bosque was hugely successful not only as a manager, but as a player as well: he won five league titles and four Copa Del Rey titles with Real Madrid. He was also a member of the Real Madrid team that lost to Liverpool in the 1981 European Cup Final. After his playing career, Del Bosque felt indebted to the club and started coaching at the youth ranks, steadily rising through the ranks. He had two spells where he stepped in as interim manager for a measly total of three games. But at the turn of the century, the club management decided to give him the full-time job after difficulties with John Toshack.
Del Bosque had Real Madrid DNA: In his four years as manager, Del Bosque marshaled the club through one of its most successful spells: two UEFA Champions League titles in 2000 and 2002, two domestic La Liga titles in 2001 and 2003, a Spanish Supercup in 2001, a UEFA Super Cup in 2002, the Intercontinental Cup in 2002 as well as qualifying for the last four of the UEFA Champions League each of the four seasons he was in charge. The success Del Bosque brought had not been seen since the Madrid side of the 1950s and 1960s.
The next to follow this trend, and the most successful manager in Real Madrid’s modern era, is Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman was appointed with limited experience and thrown into the fire with a squad in disarray. His nine titles in less than three years speak to his work. He is a symbol of the club and above all else, a Madridista. “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”. Zidane knew the players in Castilla and continued to regularly attend games. He had sons in the youth system, he was personally invested in seeing those teams and those youngsters do well. He had been in a sporting director role which saw him convince the likes of Raphael Varane and Isco to join the club while restoring the confidence of Karim Benzema during his low points with Jose Mourinho. He had spent so much time with the club and the players, 17 years, that he knew what was required and who, as well as what, he was taking on. If Madrid can now create a culture of promoting from within, which started with Zidane, then future important roles could arise for guys like Raul, Xabi Alonso, and Ruben De La Red.
It should be noted, not every former Madrid player will be a rip-roaring success. Yes, Del Bosque had the DNA, Munoz had the DNA, and Zidane has the DNA, but there are always caveats. Former player, Jose Antonio Camacho came in twice and twice left within weeks of being appointed. Even the most legendary name in Real Madrid history, Di Stefano, managed the club. The 1982-1983 season in which Di Stefano was in charge, can be deemed a failure. During that season, the team finished third in La Liga and were defeated finalists in the Supercopa de España, Copa de la Liga and Copa del Rey. Real Madrid were also defeated by Aberdeen, then managed by Alex Ferguson, in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. The examples of Di Stefano and Camacho, don’t dismiss the importance of Real Madrid values and the connection with the club, but proves there is not a one-trick pill to success.
The current crop of stars at Real Madrid seem to respond to former players best as Sergio Ramos has alluded to on a number of occasions. When top external candidates are off the table, like Pochettino and Kloop, then it only makes sense to promote from within, take one of your own and give them the responsibility as they truly understand the value of the keys they are being handed. There is no predicting the results of a Guti, a Hierro, or a Michel as manager, but if Di Stefano’s words ring true—Real Madrid is a feeling— you need characters who feel it.