Zine­dine Zi­dane

With back-to-back Cham­pi­ons Leagues at Real Madrid, is Zi­zou the man­ager even bet­ter than Zi­zou the player? FFT finds out

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words An­drew Mur­ray Ad­di­tional re­port­ing Felipe Rocha Por­traits David Cler­i­hew

Real Madrid’s new man­ager is 25 min­utes into his first press con­fer­ence on Jan­uary 5, 2016. The as­sem­bled press pack has tossed up the usual ques­tions with­out much in the way of a stand­out quote em­a­nat­ing from the lat­est coach to climb aboard Los Blan­cos’ tritu­ta­dor de en­tre­nadores, ‘the man­ager grinder’ that gob­bles up and spits out coaches with re­lent­less reg­u­lar­ity. One ques­tion, though, has just piqued the new­bie’s in­ter­est. He stiff­ens in his chair, scratches his bald­ing head and then ad­justs the mi­cro­phone in front of him. Fi­nally, he shakes his head and fixes his steely gaze firmly to his left and the ori­gin of the ques­tion. What would Zine­dine Zi­dane be happy with at the end of the sea­son? “Ga­narlo todo.” ‘Win­ning ev­ery­thing.’ He goes on. “Our ob­jec­tive is to win. We have two ti­tles to win and by the end of the year, we want to have won both.” Third-placed Real Madrid are four points be­hind the lead­ers (and city ri­vals) Atletico, have lost the first Cla­sico of the cam­paign 4-0 against Barcelona and have been dumped out of the Copa del Rey for play­ing an in­el­i­gi­ble player, De­nis Ch­ery­shev. On the hori­zon is a tricky-look­ing Cham­pi­ons League tie with Roma.

Los Blan­cos are in ut­ter dis­ar­ray, the ma­jor­ity of the squad barely on speak­ing terms with Zi­dane’s pre­de­ces­sor Rafael Ben­itez. No one – not fans, play­ers or jour­nal­ists – be­lieve this catas­tro­phe of a sea­son can be rec­ti­fied. Pres­i­dent Florentino Perez has only turned to a club le­gend, with just 18 months’ third-tier ex­pe­ri­ence as head coach of the club’s re­serves, be­cause he knows the 1998 Bal­lon d’or win­ner will at least unite a fan­base that is in­creas­ingly call­ing for his own head.

He is, at least ac­cord­ing to the crows of Barcelona-based sports paper Mundo De­portivo, “a plaster”.

And all Zi­dane can con­tem­plate from this im­pend­ing car crash of a cam­paign is win­ning. Ev­ery­thing.

Eigh­teen months on from that promise, his team have won seven of the 10 com­pe­ti­tions con­tested, in­clud­ing La Liga, two UEFA Su­per Cups and both Cham­pi­ons Leagues. They be­came the first team to de­fend the lat­ter since 1990 and the only side to do it since the tour­na­ment’s change of for­mat in 1992-93. Real Madrid’s 2016-17 dou­ble of La Liga and the Cham­pi­ons League was the first time they had won both in the same sea­son since 1957-58.

“No one ex­pected ‘Zi­dane the man­ager’ and I in­clude my­self in that,” he ad­mit­ted ear­lier this year. “When you stop play­ing, you think about things and take ad­van­tage of spend­ing time with your fam­ily, but my idea was be­ing on the pitch. I’m from the pitch. I re­ally wanted this.”

The man­ager who should never have been is now star­ing down the bar­rel of be­com­ing the first coach in tour­na­ment his­tory to win three Euro­pean Cup ti­tles in a row.

Ex­actly how did Zi­dane, the man whose play­ing ca­reer ended in such po­etic head­but­ting ig­nominy, tame his in­ner fire to su­per­sede for­mer men­tor Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mour­inho and Pep Guardi­ola to be­come the best foot­ball man­ager in the world? And in just 18 months, too.

“ZI­DANE HAD TO FIND HIS OWN WAY”

When Zine­dine Yazid Zi­dane stuck his fore­head into Marco Mat­er­azzi’s chest with 10 min­utes of ex­tra time re­main­ing in the 2006 World Cup Fi­nal, the great­est player of his gen­er­a­tion wanted noth­ing else to do with foot­ball. He had won 15 ma­jor hon­ours, in­clud­ing the World Cup, Eu­ros and the Cham­pi­ons League, hav­ing be­come the beau­ti­ful game’s Monet mas­ter­piece, Beethoven sym­phony and Nureyev recital.

Such was Zi­dane’s grace, you won­der whether he had stud­ied ev­ery move­ment his wife Veronique – a pro­fes­sional bal­let dancer un­til she was 18 – had ever made to pivot, plié and ca­ress that left-foot vol­ley into the top cor­ner to win the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal in 2002.

Born in the no­to­ri­ous Mar­seille neigh­bour­hood of La Castel­lane to Al­ge­rian par­ents Smail and Ma­lika, Zi­zou re­turned to his North African roots, be­came the face of a myr­iad prod­ucts and, most im­por­tantly, im­mersed him­self in the daily fam­ily life that foot­ball had de­nied him. Ev­ery day, Zi­dane would pick his sons up from school and drive them to Real Madrid’s Valde­be­bas train­ing ground in his club Audi – af­forded him as club am­bas­sador – for train­ing.

He’d sit incog­nito in the stands, wear­ing a scarf, hat and over­coat to avoid be­ing recog­nised, and watch Enzo, Luca and Theo (while sit­ting with an infant Elyaz, too young to take part) take their for­ma­tive steps in the game. He would then drive the brood back to the fam­ily home in Conde Orgaz – the up­mar­ket, tree-lined Madrid sub­urb where the Zi­danes have lived since first mov­ing to the Span­ish cap­i­tal in 2001.

“I had lots of of­fers to carry on but I left – that tells you ev­ery­thing,” he told FFT back in 2013. “You get tired of it. I couldn’t take it any­more. You’re al­ways in a ho­tel if you’re play­ing ev­ery three days. In the early days it can seem fun, but not when you’re 34 or 35. But you miss the adren­a­line of play­ing. You’ll al­ways miss that.”

Those last two sen­tences proved in­creas­ingly in­struc­tive. Zine­dine pro­gressed from am­bas­sador, to Perez’s spe­cial ad­vi­sor and link with the dress­ing room un­der Jose Mour­inho in 2010, then sport­ing di­rec­tor 12 months later and fi­nally Ancelotti’s as­sis­tant in 2013. Yet noth­ing sated Zi­zou’s adren­a­line fix. The man who as a kid wanted to be a lorry driver, be­cause peo­ple would de­pend on him, had to be a man­ager.

“He was look­ing in­side him­self for the best way to be­come suc­cess­ful through his own work, not just by be­ing called Zi­dane,” brother Farid re­vealed about those in­ter­ven­ing years.

“Yaz [those clos­est to Zi­dane call him by his mid­dle name, al­most as a badge of honour] missed the feel­ing of angst and pres­sure that the games pro­duced in­side him,” said his other brother Noured­dine. “And he can feel that again now as a coach.”

Many were sur­prised when he took charge of Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s re­serve team, in the sum­mer of 2014, but a hand­ful had al­ready wit­nessed the green shoots of a coach in him.

“Let me tell you, Zi­dane was one of the great­est play­ers I’ve worked with in 40 years as a man­ager,” Paulo Cam­pos, as­sis­tant to Blan­cos boss Van­der­lei Lux­em­burgo from 2004 to 2005, tells FFT. “But he was never full of him­self. He’d spend ages talk­ing with a team-mate who didn’t un­der­stand some­thing or to give his own opin­ions on tac­tics.

“You know that feel­ing of: ‘How did he think of that?’ Zi­dane didn’t only think about it, he had an­other five op­tions in his head as well.”

If Perez wanted Zi­dane to be Madrid’s Pep Guardi­ola and guide the sec­ond-string out­fit to pro­mo­tion, the pres­i­dent was in for a shock as Castilla lost five of their first six games.

Zi­dane was also mired in con­tro­versy over his un­fin­ished UEFA Pro Li­cence – the coach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion re­quired to work in Spain’s top four di­vi­sions. Hav­ing cho­sen the three-year course with the French FA in­stead of Spain’s fast-track op­tion for elite play­ers, he would not fin­ish his course un­til May 2015 – nine months af­ter tak­ing the Castilla reigns. The head of the Span­ish coach­ing fed­er­a­tion, Miguel An­gel Galan, de­manded Zi­zou’s sus­pen­sion. Real Madrid ap­pealed the de­ci­sion in court and won. That first sea­son was hardly an aus­pi­cious start. “He had to find his way,” Guy La­combe, Zi­dane’s Pro Li­cence men­tor and also the French­man’s first coach at Cannes’ youth academy when he was 15, tells FFT. “It was bet­ter for him to go through this early in his ca­reer. He learned just how dif­fi­cult this job can be. He needed a year to grow.

“He un­der­stood that, what­ever your game plan, you have to com­pose some­thing spe­cial: your play­ers, their pro­file, how you work with them on spe­cific as­pects,” La­combe adds. “The more he knew his play­ers, the bet­ter things be­came.”

“The first day he was Castilla coach, we had a chat in the dress­ing room be­fore we went out­side to train­ing,” Derik, Zi­dane’s first-choice cen­tre-back for that cam­paign, now on the books at Bolton, tells FFT.

MADRID’S 2017 LIGA AND CHAM­PI­ONS LEAGUE DOU­BLE WAS THE CLUB’S FIRST SINCE 1958

“I was sur­prised by how calm, and al­most how shy, he was. He didn’t talk too much, but what he says wins your in­stant re­spect. He just said he wanted us to go out, train and en­joy our­selves.

“He’s very de­mand­ing. From the first day, he wanted us to play good foot­ball and to win pro­mo­tion. We weren’t able to achieve that, but he was great at in­still­ing a win­ning men­tal­ity.”

With Zi­dane passed over for the top job in the sum­mer of 2015 in favour of Ben­itez (be­low right), it ap­peared an­other cam­paign of rope-learn­ing was in store at Castilla. Ben­itez may have been the boss, but there was no ig­nor­ing the fox cir­cling his hen house.

“We all knew that Zi­dane was the next op­tion if Rafa didn’t fin­ish the sea­son,” Marca jour­nal­ist Ruben Jimenez tells FFT. “To be hon­est, there hadn’t been much of an im­prove­ment in his Castilla side, but there was al­ways the feel­ing that things would get bet­ter for Zi­dane with the first team.”

“THERE WILL BE ONLY ONE MES­SAGE: TO WIN!”

On Jan­uary 4, 2016 – the day af­ter a limp 2-2 draw with Gary Neville’s Va­len­cia – Ben­itez was gone, just six months into a three-year deal.

Pres­i­dent Perez got the morale boost he des­per­ately de­sired. The fol­low­ing day, more than 5,000 fans turned up at Valde­be­bas to watch Zi­dane’s first train­ing ses­sion. Such was the de­sire among Madridis­tas to get a first look of the re­turn­ing Zi­zou, the at­mos­phere there was more like a match­day in­side the Bern­abeu.

Yet Zi­dane’s early days were about more than just liv­ing off his name. In ad­di­tion to his tro­phy-win­ning am­bi­tions, the 45-year-old’s open­ing press con­fer­ence was no­table for Zi­dane men­tion­ing “work” no fewer than 14 times. He wanted it from his play­ers and said he wouldn’t stop un­til he de­liv­ered suc­cess. A rou­tine was swiftly es­tab­lished. He ar­rives at the train­ing ground at 8.30am and doesn’t leave un­til be­tween 9.30pm and 10pm. At the end of ev­ery ses­sion, he has a meet­ing with the rest of his coach­ing team – as­sis­tant coaches David Bet­toni, Hami­dou Msai­die, goal­keeper coach Luis Llopis and fit­ness coaches An­to­nio Pin­tus and Javier Mallo – to an­a­lyse sev­eral videos of the ses­sion and dis­cuss their thoughts. “The more the week goes on, the more he starts to talk about the op­po­si­tion and the way that he wants his team to play – I know he still coaches this way,” for­mer Castilla cen­tre-back Derik re­calls. “There’s the ba­sic phi­los­o­phy of main­tain­ing good de­fen­sive shape – and then at­tack­ing well as a unit – but by the Thurs­day or Fri­day he wants his play­ers to un­der­stand the plan, and es­pe­cially where the op­po­si­tion is weak­est so that you can ex­ploit them – he’s ruth­less in that re­gard.” In be­tween this prepa­ra­tion, Zi­dane still finds time for a 45-minute run, a ses­sion of Bikram yoga ev­ery day and, ide­ally, a game of ten­nis. He’s long since ac­cepted he won’t get much sleep and gone are the days of pick­ing his kids up from school. “I’m con­vinced of the day-to-day work I will do with my play­ers,” he said in that first press con­fer­ence. “That’s fun­da­men­tal and there will be only one mes­sage: to win.” It’s a phi­los­o­phy that has re­mained with Zi­dane since his play­ing days at Ju­ven­tus dur­ing the mid-90s. Tal­ent alone is use­less with­out the ap­pli­ca­tion. Cru­cially, Zi­dane worked quickly to in­stil a har­mo­nious at­mos­phere in the squad. His fi­nal words to the play­ers be­fore his maiden game in charge, against De­portivo, were sim­ple and sought to es­tab­lish rap­port. He said: “Go out there, have a good time and make the pub­lic en­joy them­selves. En­joy it.” That last phrase is re­peated be­fore ev­ery game. Madrid thrashed the Gali­cian side 5-0. “It was re­ally tough and del­i­cate pe­riod,” says jour­nal­ist Jimenez. “He changed the team’s men­tal­ity and brought a hap­pi­ness back to the squad. He wants his play­ers to touch the ball, to play good foot­ball. Ba­si­cally, he wants his Madrid to play like he did, and that, com­pared with Ben­itez, is huge. Rafa’s foot­ball was bor­ing, the play­ers didn’t en­joy play­ing for him and his style had noth­ing re­ally to do with Madrid’s iden­tity. “Zi­dane found him­self in a dress­ing room where the pre­vi­ous man­ager had pretty much no re­la­tion­ship with the play­ers and had lost 4-0 to Barça. Con­fi­dence was low and there was no real prospect of a tro­phy. It was the last card the pres­i­dent had left to play and now look at them.” A nat­u­ral in­tro­vert, com­mon con­sen­sus had it that a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion would be one of Zi­dane’s big prob­lems. He hadn’t given a sin­gle press con­fer­ence as Castilla boss, be­cause third-tier rules don’t re­quire it. “When the cam­eras are on me, I close up be­cause I imag­ine that my fam­ily may be watch­ing and that stresses me out,” he once ad­mit­ted. And yet Zi­dane loves talk­ing one-on-one with his play­ers. In part, it’s a learned be­hav­iour. “I re­mem­ber the smile on his face when I used to say some words in Ara­bic to him,” ex­plains Cam­pos, who spent years

“HE WANTS HIS PLAY­ERS TO TOUCH THE BALL, TO PLAY GOOD FOOT­BALL, TO PLAY LIKE HE DID”

work­ing in the Mid­dle East be­fore be­com­ing Madrid’s as­sis­tant boss. “It brought him back to his Ara­bic roots. Far away from Al­ge­ria, he had a friend to talk to in his mother-tongue. It brought us closer to­gether.”

Zi­dane’s re­la­tion­ship with Karim Ben­zema is pred­i­cated on a sim­i­lar rap­port – both of Al­ge­rian des­cent, both in­tro­verts, both fam­ily men.

“He gives me ev­ery­thing,” Madrid’s re­vi­talised striker has said of his man­ager and men­tor. “He wants me to do well. He may not talk very much, but his words are cer­tain and be­fore ev­ery game he usu­ally says some­thing that makes me feel good.”

When Ben­zema says his man­ager doesn’t talk much, he’s not jok­ing. Team talks are usu­ally re­stricted to two (a max­i­mum of three) tac­ti­cal points, be­cause Zi­zou believes play­ers aren’t ca­pa­ble of re­mem­ber­ing more once the match has kicked off.

“The most im­por­tant thing is the mes­sage you trans­fer to play­ers,” Zi­dane claimed ear­lier this year in an in­ter­view with Mex­i­can tele­vi­sion. “I want there to be few in­struc­tions to the group. They’re pro­fes­sion­als and they know how to play. You keep things sim­ple.”

Ul­ti­mately, Zi­dane trusts his play­ers and is merely tun­ing into what he ap­pre­ci­ated most from his coaches in his ca­reer.

“If you’ve got a happy Real Madrid dress­ing room,” says the for­mer Castilla de­fender Derik, who reg­u­larly at­tended first-team train­ing in his fi­nal three years with Los Blan­cos, “that means you’re a very good coach, be­cause it’s not easy to keep so many big-name play­ers happy.

“Re­sults fol­low on from that. Ev­ery time they play, you see a united team which plays for its man­ager. He’d al­ways talk one-on-one with his play­ers and, given the great player that he was, you can’t help but lis­ten to what ad­vice he has to say. There’s no one bet­ter than Zine­dine Zi­dane to ex­plain what you’re do­ing well and what you’re do­ing badly.”

Therein lies Zi­zou’s other great­est strength. He may choose to swerve ques­tions about his il­lus­tri­ous play­ing days at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, but who he is mat­ters. One of the rea­sons why Ben­itez so alien­ated Real’s dress­ing room was be­cause he tried to teach Cris­tiano Ron­aldo et al how to strike the ball at a free-kick, de­spite the New­cas­tle man­ager’s mod­est play­ing ca­reer. The four-time Bal­lon d’or win­ner met this kind of in­ter­fer­ence with great re­sent­ment.

Zi­dane in­stead chal­lenged the Por­tuguese star to a train­ing ground com­pe­ti­tion: a line of balls placed 20 yards from the goal, an in­flat­able wall and a goal­keeper – Zi­dane won.

“He was a bet­ter tech­ni­cal foot­baller than any of us,” Chelsea striker Al­varo Mo­rata, who played un­der Zi­dane in last sea­son’s his­toric Real dou­ble, tells FFT. “He could still be play­ing now, I’m cer­tain of that. He would join in with the ron­dos or cross balls into the penalty area when we were do­ing shoot­ing prac­tice and they’d all be per­fect. All of those things make you want to im­press him.

“His name alone car­ried such weight in the squad,” Mo­rata adds. “He is one of the best play­ers in his­tory and that means when you be­come a coach, you have that added re­spect be­cause of what you achieved as a player. He talks to you, he lis­tens. That’s his great­est strength and it tells you what sort of per­son he is.”

PUT­TING THE EN­GINE BACK IN THE BENT­LEY

Those early months weren’t with­out their teething prob­lems, how­ever. Given a tac­ti­cal les­son by Diego Sime­one dur­ing a 1-0 derby de­feat to Atletico Madrid in late Fe­bru­ary 2016, Zi­zou turned to a player who had come to rep­re­sent Rafa’s stodgy team.

Casemiro is a no-frills de­fen­sive mid­fielder in the Claude Makelele role. So much crit­i­cism did Ben­itez re­ceive for play­ing the Brazil­ian, he felt com­pelled to play Luka Mo­dric and Toni Kroos as de­fen­sive mid­field­ers in Real Madrid’s 4-0 Cla­sico hum­bling.

Yet in los­ing to Atletico, Zi­dane went back to Casemiro, and a 4-3-3, to sure up his de­fence. He per­suaded pres­i­dent Perez it was a nec­es­sary move to al­low Ron­aldo, Ben­zema, Mo­dric and Gareth Bale to pros­per.

“Why put an­other layer of gold paint on the Bent­ley when you are los­ing the en­tire en­gine?” Zi­dane had fa­mously said when Perez sold Makelele to Chelsea and re­placed him with David Beck­ham in 2003, as the orig­i­nal Galac­ti­cos pol­icy im­ploded. It took Perez 13 years, and a re­minder from Zi­dane, to take note.

By April, Casemiro’s high press­ing set the tone for Real’s Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal come­back against Wolfs­burg, over­turn­ing a 2-0

first-leg de­feat with a 3-0 win at the Bern­abeu. De­spite win­ning their last 12 league matches, the Span­ish ti­tle was al­ways un­likely, but the un­dec­ima, the ‘11th Euro­pean Cup’, was still tan­ta­lis­ingly close with Manch­ester City dis­posed of in the last four.

Sime­one’s Atletico handed Zi­dane the chance of tac­ti­cal re­demp­tion. In truth, the game was very even, but Madrid’s boss had to lead al­most in spite of him­self. Apart from his ethe­real tal­ents, the thing that most stays with you about Zi­dane’s play­ing ca­reer is his tem­per. Thir­teen of his 14 ca­reer red cards were for re­tal­i­a­tion.

“I’ve had to learn not to show any ten­sion, be­cause that trans­fers to the play­ers,” he has said about the fire that still burns deep within. Mas vale la maña que fuerza, say the Span­ish – ‘brain is bet­ter than brawn’.

“The feel­ing that I have at the side of the pitch is to­tally dif­fer­ent to play­ing. On the pitch, I could change things and sort things from time to time, but now it is just the play­ers.”

Be­fore that 2016 Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal, with his play­ers all talk­ing about “pres­sure” and “ten­sion” in the build-up, Zi­dane’s last words as his charges went down the tun­nel eased all the nerves. Pri­vately, many of those who took penal­ties in the en­su­ing shootout suc­cess ad­mit to re­mem­ber­ing the man­ager’s short speech as they be­gan their run-up.

“I wish I could play.” No one missed.

THE KEY THING IS THAT THE PLAY­ERS GET ON RE­ALLY F**KING WELL!”

That sum­mer, Zi­zou sought to twist the knife on his ri­vals do­mes­ti­cally and abroad. Yes, Real Madrid had won the Cham­pi­ons League, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to win La Liga, a com­pe­ti­tion Los Blan­cos had won only once in eight sea­sons.

To do so, Zi­dane knew he had to ro­tate and en­sure his play­ers were in the best shape for ev­ery game. “Phys­i­cally,” he had said at sev­eral in­ter­vals dur­ing the pre­vi­ous cam­paign, “we need to im­prove a lot.”

The call went out to fetch fit­ness coach An­to­nio Pin­tus from Lyon. Zi­dane had hated the bat­tle-hard­ened Ital­ian’s ex­haust­ing ses­sions when they first met more than two decades ear­lier at Ju­ven­tus, but he never for­got the long-term ben­e­fits.

Pin­tus in­flicted the same pain on the Real Madrid squad as he had on its head coach. On the open­ing day of pre-sea­son there was blood, sweat, tears and vomit. Lots of vomit. Ex­er­cises ranged from bal­ance to jumps and sprints, which were washed down with a 30-minute run. Ev­ery. Sin­gle. Ses­sion. For three weeks.

“Pin­tus has been so im­por­tant,” Mo­dric said at the end of the sea­son. “So much of this year is down to him.”

With the play­ers in bet­ter con­di­tion than ever, Zi­dane was con­fi­dent enough to ro­tate. Though he missed out on his pri­mary trans­fer tar­get, Paul Pogba, academy grad­u­ates Diego Llorente, Al­varo Mo­rata and Marco Asen­sio came back to the Bern­abeu af­ter spells away. All were hun­gry to prove their worth and slot­ted into the team when needed.

In the Oc­to­ber of 2016, Real Madrid recorded 6-1, 5-1, 7-1 and 4-1 vic­to­ries, all with dif­fer­ent start­ing XIS.

When Isco started against Atletico the week­end af­ter the Novem­ber in­ter­na­tional break – Ben­zema, Ser­gio Ramos and James Ro­driguez were all rested – eye­brows were raised. Given a free role, the diminu­tive play­maker was fresh and ex­celled be­tween the lines of Atletico’s rigid de­fence and Real tri­umphed 3-0. It was, said Marca, ‘un baño tac­tico’– lit­er­ally ‘a tac­ti­cal bath’. Zi­dane had ef­fec­tively tucked Sime­one up in bed with a cup of co­coa.

“The key is the re­la­tion­ship he’s got with his play­ers,” believes Derik. “They are su­per­stars, but Zi­dane knows when foot­ballers are at their best mo­ment and when to rest them, so they play the most im­por­tant matches in the best con­di­tion. And they all ac­cept it be­cause of this.”

The sys­tem wasn’t, how­ever, with­out its prob­lems. Post-christ­mas tin­ker­ing re­sulted in de­feat to Sevilla, end­ing a 40-game un­beaten run, and a Copa del Rey exit to Celta Vigo. ‘Doc­tor,’ screamed the front page of Marca, ‘this is se­ri­ous.’ It re­mains Zi­zou’s worst month in charge, with face­less club direc­tors ap­pear­ing in the press de­nounc­ing his ex­per­i­ment with a back three against Sevilla, in par­tic­u­lar. A 3-3 home draw to Las Pal­mas re­sulted in some sim­i­lar head­lines. Even­tu­ally, with fewer changes made each week, con­fi­dence and wins re­turned.

“At the be­gin­ning, I didn’t think it was good for the team,” Mo­dric later said. “When you play and then don’t play, you think you’re go­ing to lose form. In the end Zi­dane showed us how im­por­tant they can be.

“Now I think they’re good, but it’s also helped with how oth­ers have come in. We’ve won games be­cause of them. Later, ev­ery­one has been talk­ing about the ‘A Team’ and ‘B Team’ but we don’t look at it like that. We’re Real Madrid. One team! Any player who plays can do a good job.”

No player ben­e­fited from the ro­ta­tions more than Cris­tiano Ron­aldo. Re­turn­ing from win­ning Euro 2016 the pre­vi­ous sum­mer with an in­jured knee, the Por­tuguese sat down for a meet­ing with Zi­dane. He told CR7, now 31, about his ro­ta­tion plan, and that Ron­aldo would still fea­ture promi­nently but that it would help him pro­long his ca­reer.

Zi­dane rea­soned that, in­stead of reach­ing the end of the cam­paign drained – chas­ing La Liga’s Pichichi tro­phy for top goalscorer – Ron­aldo would peak at the sea­son’s cli­max fresher and be more able to af­fect the key fix­tures, rather than the lim­ited im­pact he had on the 2016 Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal.

“Lis­ten to me and we’ll make his­tory,” he said. “It’s be­cause we need you that I want you to not play some­times.” CR7 only lis­tened as it was Zi­dane do­ing the talk­ing.

Zi­dane un­der­stands his tal­is­man’s need for praise like few oth­ers. “If I were in the same team as Cris­tiano,” he said last sea­son, “he’d be the star, with­out doubt.” For his part, Ron­aldo is “ec­static” with Zi­zou as “he sees foot­ball dif­fer­ently to other coaches”.

“No coach has got on bet­ter with Cris­tiano than Zi­dane,” con­firms Marca jour­nal­ist Jimenez. “He’s made him eval­u­ate his ca­reer bet­ter – to rest and ro­tate.”

Be­tween March 18 and May 17, Ron­aldo didn’t play in a sin­gle away game in La Liga. He didn’t even travel. Zi­dane and his coach­ing team re­alised that such is the beast that lurks within the for­mer Manch­ester United for­ward, sit­ting on the sub­sti­tutes’ bench is no kind of rest. He wants to come on if things are not go­ing well. At home, he can watch the match, de­void of that same stress.

It helped that, dur­ing those games, Isco and Marco Asen­sio came to the fore – the for­mer’s two goals at Sport­ing Gi­jon the de­fin­i­tive proof of Zi­dane’s ro­ta­tion pol­icy in ac­tion. It didn’t even mat­ter that Bale got in­jured (again) in April’s Cla­sico de­feat.

This was a re­lent­less win­ning ma­chine, one which the man­ager had cul­ti­vated since his very first press con­fer­ence. He’d done so by us­ing the youth team to give first-team­ers a breather. Fif­teen years ear­lier, Perez’s Zi­danes y Pavones pol­icy – Galac­tico stars sup­ported by youth team grad­u­ates – had failed be­cause the coach­ing struc­ture wasn’t in place. Now, Zi­dane’s spell as Castilla coach has es­tab­lished that route.

“I see tal­ent ev­ery day at Valde­be­bas,” he told FFT in 2013. “There are play­ers there who are go­ing to make it, but 80-90 per cent will do so away from Real Madrid. I’m here to try to change that. You can’t be a phe­nom­e­non in 10 min­utes. There has to be con­ti­nu­ity.”

Mo­rata, Na­cho, Llorente, Lu­cas Vazquez, Dani Car­va­jal and Mar­i­ano and had all come through and were vi­tal to win­ning a first La Liga ti­tle for five years, fi­nally se­cured with a 2-0 vic­tory at Malaga.

“I’d like to get up here and dance,” Zi­dane said af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle. “I’m not go­ing to, but on the in­side I’m very, very happy.”

A 4-4-2 di­a­mond, with Isco at the tip and Ron­aldo up­front along­side Ben­zema or Mo­rata be­came the go-to for­ma­tion. Ron­aldo found the net seven times in three Cham­pi­ons League games – five across both

“no COACH HAS GOT On BET­TER WITH RON­ALDO AT REAL THAN ZI­DANE. HE’S MADE HIM EVAL­U­ATE HIS CA­REER BET­TER – TO REST AND RO­TATE”

legs to dis­pose of Bay­ern Mu­nich in the quar­ter-fi­nals and a hat-trick in a 3-0 first-leg win against Atletico Madrid in the last four – to prove beyond doubt the ge­nius of his man­ager’s long-term plan.

June’s Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal against Ju­ven­tus af­forded Zi­dane his best chance to show off that acu­men. For the week be­fore the match, train­ing ses­sion af­ter train­ing ses­sion was ded­i­cated to low cut­backs from the by­line back to the penalty spot, af­ter Zi­dane no­ticed Juve’s ten­dency in their quar­ter-fi­nal vic­tory against Barcelona to de­fend and pro­tect the area im­me­di­ately in front of keeper Gian­luigi Buf­fon’s goal.

“The Juve de­fence are bril­liant when it comes to crosses into the box, but not so much when it comes to low cut­backs,” said Mo­dric af­ter the 4-1 romp in Cardiff. “We worked on that con­stantly and that’s how we scored three of our four goals. Con­grat­u­la­tions to the coach.”

That tac­ti­cal twist is Zi­dane’s coup de grace, just when crit­ics tried to dis­miss the French­man’s achieve­ments as a mere mo­ti­va­tor.

“There’s no doubt there are still those who are con­vinced that Zi­dane doesn’t have a tac­ti­cal brain, who think that ev­ery­thing is down to the play­ers, but ev­ery­thing starts with him,” says jour­nal­ist Jimenez. “He changed for­ma­tions and brought in Isco, Asen­sio and Ma­teo Ko­vacic as well. That’s all down to his phi­los­o­phy and foot­ball brain.”

Derik agrees. “You can say that he’s got great play­ers, but they’re the same ones who didn’t have a great last sea­son un­der Carlo Ancelotti and strug­gled with Ben­itez. It doesn’t mat­ter how good the play­ers are, you’ve got to learn how to man­age them.”

The cel­e­bra­tions, be­com­ing the first Real Madrid coach since 1958 to win the league ti­tle and Euro­pean Cup in the same sea­son, meant so much to some­one who has Blanco blood. Zi­dane said “gra­cias” 18 times in his post-match press con­fer­ence.

“You en­joy it a bit more as a coach, be­cause to achieve those vic­to­ries is more dif­fi­cult,” Zi­dane ex­plained. “The key is that ev­ery­one has felt im­por­tant. Above all else, though, the key thing is that all the play­ers get on re­ally f**king well.” Pres­i­dent Perez was no less ec­static. “Zi­dane di­rects the orches­tra like no one else,” he said at full-time, con­firm­ing his man­ager and friend would con­tinue into 2017-18. “We have the best play­ers and are work­ing on the young­sters. He’s changed our his­tory ever since join­ing us in 2001 and we will al­ways be grate­ful.”

“MADRID ARE NOW THE DOM­I­NANT FORCE IN EURO­PEAN FOOT­BALL”

No Real Madrid coach, not even Jose Mour­inho, has en­joyed as much power at the Bern­abeu. When re­ports emerged over the sum­mer in the Por­tuguese and Span­ish press that Ron­aldo was look­ing to leave, feel­ing pur­sued by the Ha­cienda (Spain’s HMRC) over al­leged un­paid tax and un­sup­ported by the club over his up­com­ing court date, Zi­zou was the first per­son to pick up the phone. He wanted to un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion for him­self.

“Cris, we need you,” said the coach from his fam­ily hol­i­day in Italy. Quite apart from the Por­tuguese’s goals, Zi­dane ex­plained, it was CR7’S win­ning men­tal­ity he needed the most.

Ron­aldo ap­pre­ci­ated the ges­ture, with his man­ager per­suad­ing the Bal­lon d’or favourite to at least not go pub­lic and de­lay mak­ing a hasty de­ci­sion. All the work that had gone into ex­plain­ing how Zi­dane could help pro­long his ca­reer meant the world’s best player re­mained in the Span­ish cap­i­tal. No one else could have over­turned the iron will of this most head­strong of men.

Ul­ti­mately, all the play­ers trust him. Ten days be­fore the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal against Ju­ven­tus, Zi­dane marched into Florentino Perez’s of­fice to say: “Key­lor Navas is my goal­keeper.” Ef­fec­tively, Florentino, don’t bother sign­ing David de Gea. Navas may not be a star name, but his con­sis­tent ex­cel­lence through­out three sea­sons at the Bern­abeu – es­pe­cially at the busi­ness end of the last one – and the easy-go­ing at­mos­phere the Costa Ri­can cre­ates in the group meant Zi­zou wouldn’t coun­te­nance his dis­posal.

“ZI­DANE DI­RECTS THE ORCHES­TRA LIKE no ONE ELSE. WE’LL AL­WAYS BE GRATE­FUL”

Isco has de­vel­oped into one of the best foot­ballers in Europe un­der Zi­dane and was jus­ti­fi­ably handed a Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal start in June, ahead of Gareth Bale.

“Po­cos cam­bios,” was the mes­sage over the sum­mer. ‘Few changes’. Kylian Mbappe – Perez’s first-choice sign­ing – could come in, but only if one of Ron­aldo, Ben­zema or Bale was moved on. Zi­dane’s com­pa­triot in­stead joined Ney­mar at Paris Saint-ger­main. There’d be no “bobma”, a ‘trans­fer bomb’ which Perez prefers to an­i­mate Madridista sup­port. Only Dani Ce­bal­los – the 20-year-old Real Betis mid­fielder who starred at this year’s Euro­pean Un­der-21 Cham­pi­onship – and Theo Her­nan­dez from city ri­vals Atletico, to pro­vide left-back cover for Brazil­ian Marcelo.

He also sent James on loan to Bay­ern Mu­nich for a cou­ple of sea­sons. In­creas­ingly un­able to reach an ac­cept­able match­day rhythm, when James mouthed “go f**k your­self” while get­ting hooked 72 min­utes into a rou­tine win at Le­ganes last sea­son, it was the fi­nal straw for Zi­dane. He’s loyal, yes, but there are lim­its to his pa­tience.

Such in­flu­ence hasn’t been with­out its in­creas­ing draw­backs, though. Zi­dane felt he could no longer stand in the way of for­wards Mo­rata and Mar­i­ano, both of whom he had seen rise through the youth ranks. The for­mer scored three goals in his first four Chelsea matches, the lat­ter four in five games for Lyon.

When Ben­zema in­jured a knee in mid-septem­ber to miss six weeks, Zi­dane’s only nat­u­ral No.9 was Borja May­oral, a 20-year-old with just eight first-team ex­pe­ri­ences at Madrid, who had scored only twice in 19 Bun­desliga ap­pear­ances on loan at Wolfs­burg through­out 2016-17. For per­haps the first time, the coach had let his heart rule his head. “He wished me a lot of luck in the fu­ture and sim­ply told me to en­joy my new chap­ter,” Mo­rata tells FFT. “He’s al­ways spo­ken about things to my face. That shows you what type of per­son he is.”

“Look­ing at our squad, we may be miss­ing a No.9,” Zi­dane ad­mit­ted af­ter Ben­zema’s in­jury in a dis­ap­point­ing 1-1 home draw with Le­vante, es­pe­cially with Bale the fre­quent sub­ject of whis­tles of dis­ap­proval from the Bern­abeu faith­ful. “I would have liked Mo­rata to stay here but he wanted to play more foot­ball, which was his choice.”

That re­sult was also no­table for the re­turn of an af­flic­tion unique to Real M ad rid–Cr is ti an­ode pen den­cia: anover-reliance on Ron­aldo. The Por­tuguese re­ceived a five-game sus­pen­sion for push­ing the ref­eree in the Span­ish Su­per Cup vic­tory against Barcelona and missed that draw, plus an­other against Va­len­cia. For the first time, Zi­dane felt em­bold­ened enough to crit­i­cise the ref. “I’m not look­ing for a fight with them, but any­body can im­prove and ref­er­ees are no dif­fer­ent,” he said. “To think Cris­tiano will now miss five games, oof, some­thing is hap­pen­ing there. I’m an­noyed with this, like ev­ery­one, be­cause for such a small thing, such a pun­ish­ment is huge.”

Zi­dane has al­lowed a men­tal block to en­ve­lope the Madrid squad. It was dif­fer­ent when there was no Ron­aldo through ro­ta­tion – that was his choice. When de­nied their star, they couldn’t over­come that hur­dle.

“We need Cris­tiano now to score our goals,” Theo Her­nan­dez said. “We’ve had chances, but missed them.”

All this, de­spite win­ning the Span­ish Su­per Cup and the UEFA Su­per Cup with a scin­til­lat­ing dis­play against Manch­ester United. For many, it’s un­seemly for a Real Madrid man­ager to crit­i­cise a ref­eree, es­pe­cially when it per­me­ates through the squad’s psy­che.

“The epit­ome of anger’s reached him at his best mo­ment since be­ing in charge,” penned one colum­nist. “He should be all smiles, the same as al­ways but mul­ti­plied by seven ti­tles, but Zi­dane’s warier than ever. His words have dom­i­nated the pub­lic opin­ion and the game has hardly been spo­ken about.”

He crit­i­cised his play­ers’ at­ti­tude against Le­vante (“we’re play­ing with too much con­fi­dence”) and tore into the squad dur­ing half-time of the open­ing match of their Cham­pi­ons League de­fence at home to APOEL. Ac­cord­ing to Marca, Zi­dane claimed that his play­ers had “no at­ti­tude, no in­ten­sity and no de­sire” af­ter go­ing into the break only one goal up. They went on to tri­umph 3-0.

“Madrid are now the dom­i­nant force in Euro­pean foot­ball,” Zi­zou had said af­ter the vic­tory in Cardiff. “To­mor­row we must show that again.”

And yet, for the first time in 18 im­pos­si­bly suc­cess­ful months, Zi­dane seems un­der pres­sure and tetchy, al­most as if he’s start­ing to be­come bur­dened by the in­tense weight of be­ing the over­whelm­ing favourites.

LA DEC­IMA, UN­DEC­IMA, DUODEC­IMA…DEC­I­MOTER­CERO?

Th­ese re­main only mi­nor griev­ances, com­pared to those ex­pe­ri­enced a few hun­dred miles north-east in Cat­alo­nia. Madrid’s cur­rent team is their best since win­ning five suc­ces­sive Euro­pean Cups in the ’50s and it comes at a time when Barcelona’s crown has slipped. Ney­mar’s gone, the pres­i­dent is fac­ing con­stant calls to re­sign and is due in court over the Brazil­ian’s trans­fer, and both the club and Lionel Messi can’t de­cide whether he’s ac­tu­ally signed a new deal, which runs out next sum­mer.

“Af­ter so many years of Barcelona dom­i­nance, that Real Madrid’s best spell for years co­in­cides with a mo­ment of huge in­sta­bil­ity with Barça is quite the source of joy for Madridis­tas,” says Marca jour­nal­ist Jimenez. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re more in­ter­ested in what’s hap­pen­ing at the Bern­abeu, though it does taste a bit sweeter.”

Zi­dane has al­ways wanted to cre­ate Real Madrid his­tory. In 2003, he gave an in­ter­view say­ing he wanted to win “la dec­ima, un­dec­ima and duodec­ima”. He meant as a player, but he’s se­cured Los Blan­cos’ 10th, 11th and 12th Euro­pean Cups as first as­sis­tant, then man­ager in 2014, 2016 and 2017. Un­sur­pris­ingly, his team are early favourites to claim la dec­i­moter­cero – ‘the thir­teenth’ – this sea­son.

True, he hasn’t elab­o­rated on his plans from next sum­mer, when his con­tract runs out, and has said “I know I won’t be here for­ever”, but he lives and breathes Real like few oth­ers.

“Look, Real Madrid are the best team in the world be­cause of what they’ve achieved in the last two years,” says Zi­zou’s for­mer charge Derik. “And by def­i­ni­tion, the best team in the world is man­aged by the best man­ager.”

On that sub­ject, Zi­dane’s re­mains un­moved. “Nooooo,” he said when the ques­tion came up amid Cardiff cel­e­bra­tions.

Paulo Cam­pos believes Zi­dane’s suc­cess is unique among world-class play­ers-turned-man­agers.

“Zi­dane stud­ied to be­come a coach,” he says. “He reached this point step by step. Be­ing able to per­form at the top level doesn’t mean you com­pletely un­der­stand the game, but his ‘foot­ball in­tel­li­gence’ is rare. In the fu­ture, he’ll be man­ager of an im­por­tant na­tional team, like France at the World Cup.”

Marca’s Jimenez also puts Zi­zou in the high­est bracket. His op­po­si­tion is crushed, his squad fully be­hind him, his pres­i­dent en­thral to his beat.

“He’ll join an elite group of the best coaches in his­tory with Pep, Cruyff and Ancelotti if he wins a third Cham­pi­ons League in a row,” he says. “But per­son­ally, I think he’s al­ready there.”

Im­mor­tal­ity awaits. Again.

Left Zi­dane made his­tory in Cardiff, hav­ing served as as­sis­tant to Carlo Ancelotti (be­low)

Above Zi­zou brought the hap­pi­ness back to Madrid af­ter “bor­ing” Ben­itez was dumped

Above Marco Asen­sio (left) and new ar­rival Dani Ce­bal­los (right) show off the Span­ish Su­per Cup – Zi­dane’s sev­enth tro­phy since tak­ing the Madrid job

Clock­wise from top Zi­dane’s rap­port with Ron­aldo was vi­tal to CR7’S de­ci­sion to stay in the sum­mer; “Give us a chance, gaffer!”; pos­ing with ‘Old Big Ears’ for the sec­ond sea­son in suc­ces­sion

Be­low “Time for a rest? OK, see­ing as it’s you”

Above Zi­zou’s al­ready equalled Pep’s tally of Euro­pean Cup vic­to­ries

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