Robbie Dunne reflects on the managerial rise of the former French football legend
When Zinedine Zidane was offered the Real Madrid job back in January 2016, France Football’s Noel de Graet urged him to take a managerial role at a smaller club.
Bordeaux were mentioned, but Zizou was convinced he could make a stab at it with Los Blancos.
“In accepting the coach’s job at Madrid he has not chosen the easiest route,” de Graet said at the time.
Zidane, however, was convinced that he could deal with the galacticos. He had been one himself, and far from the tactics board and the X's and O's, the former Ballon d’Or winner has shown his ability to handle situations in and out of the press like a bald master of Zen and guru of communications.
From spats with James over playing time, to Ronaldo saying Real Madrid would be better off if the rest of the players matched his standards, Zidane has rolled with the punches and gelled Los Blancos into the most feared team in Europe. He has done it all with a smile and unerring charisma that makes the French man seem impervious to plaudits and criticism at once.
One of the most impressive cases for Zidane’s ability is his handling of Cristiano Ronaldo.
“It was a good idea to prepare me like this,” is what Ronaldo said after he scored two goals to make it 12 total in the Champions League for the season, and 600 for club and country. It was a pinnacle of a career that inexplicably seems to be on an upward trend despite the Portuguese attacker nearing 33 years of age.
Picture by: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport
“Sometimes good communication means knowing when to shut up. And that’s something I’m very good at,” said Zidane in a magazine interview with GQ last season.
His convivial smile and slow, methodical Spanish means he says plenty but gives away nothing in the press.
“When I arrived two months ago, everything was beautiful. And now that we have lost one game everything is black,” is what Zidane said after a loss to Barcelona last year that ultimately ended their La Liga title hopes and put Zidane’s future at the club in the spotlight.
What seems more important for Zidane is to show not that he knows when to shut up, but that he knows exactly how it works at Real Madrid.
He constantly throws in comments at the end of his sentences about not being moved by what is being said outside the camp. “The rest doesn’t bother me,” is what he will say to remind everyone that Zinedine Zidane does not need anyone’s approval; That comes in the form of victories and records and silverware.
Before Saturday he said, “A coach always knows what he is going to do, but I will not say anything” when asked about whether he would choose Bale or Isco in his starting line-up.
Zinedine Zidane is an island. His modus operandi is to stay humble because he knows all too well that there is just a yard between a pat on the back and a boot up the arse.
For now, with a league title and two Champions Leagues, the hand remains to the north of that line.
What we witnessed on Saturday night was over a year's worth of coaxing his players to work more coherently together and fight until the opponent surrenders, the melding of a squad into one.
The whole might be greater than the sum of its parts but some of those parts are sensational too, and Zidane knows exactly how to prod the best out of them.
Ronaldo celebrates scoring. Picture by: Nick Potts/PA Wire/PA Images
Back in January, just 26 days into the job at Real Madrid, Zidane said about Ronaldo: “He’s fine, and he is working well just like the others; he only needs to work a little more.”
He reminded his talisman of his duties before going on a charm offensive in what was a turning point in their relationship, and Ronaldo’s transformation into the most lethal version we might have in an utterly astounding career.
If there were a trophy for handling the media and his players, Zidane would be down at Cibeles showing off his most recent silverware along with the Champions League Cup, his second after just 20 games in the competition. Instead, he praises his players, and he insists that it is them who deserve the plaudits.
“I am not the best manager in the world,” he said after his side’s demolition of Juventus on Saturday night. Whether he believes that or not, we will never know because one thing Zidane will not do is give away too much.