London – On his 20th Champions League night, Zinédine Zidane left with his second European Cup – as many as Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson. It was way after midnight by the time Sergio Ramos carried it out of Cardiff and Zidane had already departed, slipping away quietly, pausing only to embrace the Juventus manager, Massimiliano Allegri, as he went. As the Real Madrid players paraded the trophy around the pitch Zidane had stood aside with his wife, watching them, a fond look on his face. “The key is that they get on bloody brilliantly,” he insisted. Cristiano Ronaldo said: “He believes in us.”
Zidane had believed himself, too, quietly. Now everyone does. It has all happened so fast, history made swiftly. At the side of the pitch he was asked if he was the best manager in the world. Once that question might have been laughed at but in Cardiff it was legitimate. It will be asked again, too, even as there are those who resist, clinging to his own line that it is all about the players. “No,” Zidane said here. “Not that, no.”
Yet look what he and his team had just done, the men he had matched. His Madrid had become the first team since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, 27 years earlier to defend the European Cup.
No one had done it in the Champions League era. Zidane had done it in a season and a half. Ramos had called it a “date with history”, which it was, even for the biggest, most successful club of all. The next step is to mark a generation. It might sound strange to talk about this as the start of something when Madrid have won three European Cups in four years – Gareth Bale admitting “we’re getting used to this” – but that is how it felt. Perhaps because their manager is only just starting out. But what a start.
When he was presented, hastily pushed on to the stage in January 2016 as Rafa Benítez was dragged off it never to be spoken about again, Zidane was asked what constituted success. “Winning everything,” he replied. In less than two seasons he has won two European Cups, the European Super Cup, the Club World Cup and the league title – Madrid’s first in five years. They had waited 59 years to win a league and European Cup double. No one expected this, not even Zidane, the man who says he has a “star” somewhere, guiding him.
Even if the promise had been made a long time before, this was not the way he anticipated it. In the buildup to the final, the sports newspaper Marca recovered an old interview with Zidane, tagging it The Prophecy. Conducted in 2002, just after his wonderful volley in Glasgow had given Madrid their ninth European Cup, Zidane said he wanted to win their 10th, 11th and 12th as well. Eventually he has done so: it has taken 15 years, 17 months of them as manager.
A player in Glasgow, in Lisbon in 2014 he was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant, while he led the team in Milan in 2016 and Cardiff this year. Zidane the manager has been more successful even than Zidane the player. Quietly does it. That has always been his way.
A former team-mate barely remembers him saying a word, describing him as shy, which is just one of the reasons why his success is unexpected. Even as assistant players did not see it, one member of the side who won in Lisbon admits. Yet the shyness was superficial and tranquillity has proven part of his success.
He might not say much but when Zidane does, people listen – perhaps precisely because he does not say much. It was always his personality, although get him alone and he is unexpectedly engaging, and now as a manager it is a conscious policy too: don’t complicate it, don’t overload. A member of the coaching staff says messages expressed to footballers should be limited to two clear concepts; beyond that you lose them. And as for long video sessions, forget it.
Zidane is familiar with footballers, attuned to their attitudes and concerns, especially at this elite level. He has made it about them, always; he wants them to be themselves, to feel important, but he has to guide them.
This is especially so when it comes to Ronaldo. No one has connected with him quite like this or convinced him to take a step back like this before, preparing and protecting him like this. Asked who would be the star if he had played with Ronaldo, Zidane replied: “I could play quite well but him for sure. He scores goals and that’s the hardest thing of all.” In Cardiff, Ronaldo scored two, as he has often of late. “The manager has been intelligent,” the forward said.
Zidane has empathised and encouraged rather than imposed. Benítez tried to stop Luka Modric playing those passes with the outside of the foot; Zidane offered up his admiration instead. But he has adjusted, too. Modric said after the final: “He tells us what we need to do in the defensive part and in the game to express ourselves, to keep the ball, to play for the team and to try to do our best. If he can see something that we can do on the pitch, he tells us.” He also explained how, at half-time, Zidane told his team to push higher up the pitch, demanding they be more aggressive. “[The turnaround] was definitely the mister,” Modric added.
That aggression is part of it, part of Zidane. There was always a presence about him, a quiet authority. It came with the player he was but also the man he is and the coach he wanted to be. The apparent timidity hid a toughness to which others testify, a competitiveness. A sense of honour, too – this is a man who publicly spoke out against Marine Le Pen, whom Jacques Chirac called a man of “heart and conviction”. As a footballer people said he was effortless but that was not a description he shared or welcomed. He saw himself as a competitor. “I’m not there to perform, I’m there to win,” he said.
After his retirement as a player, Zidane remained connected to Madrid. For everything he symbolised – the club’s president, Florentino Pérez, described him as the most emblematic signing he had ever made – he was useful to have around. However he was given roles that were largely empty and did not fulfil him – so he went his own way. He wanted to do something “real”. His word. He wanted to win.
The Guardian Sport