Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Zizou Checks Out

Zinedine Zidane played another blinder.

Just like his volley in Glasgow to win Real the Champions League, his goals to take France to the World Cup final or his headbutt on Marco Materazzi.

This man does the unexpected.

The latest and hopefully not last abrupt punctuation to his career was the shock announcement he had resigned as Real Madrid manager a few days after having won a third successive UEFA Champions League.

Whites owner Florentino Perez had been kept in the dark, the press were ignorant and only his captain had been given forewarning of his boss' plan to call it a day.

Apparently the French legend had told Sergio Ramos in the week leading up to the final against Liverpool in Kiev but it came as a shock to the rest of his squad, Cristiano Ronaldo included.

Knowing it was his manager's final match and that he had put faith in him by confiding his getaway, did that make Ramos all the more determined to win the cup for Zizou, by any means necessary..?

The latest news is that Ramos' elbow had concussed Loris Karius, damaging the Liverpool goalie's reflexes.

Bernabeu Stadium, home of Real Madrid


Despite a third place finish in La Primera, which is a black mark for any Real manager, as well as a lame quarter-final exit in the Copa del Rey to Leganes, there is no suggestion that Zidane was in any danger of being sacked.

His three years at the helm have been such a triumphant trophy haul they probably needed to buy a new cabinet at the Bernabeu - one league title, two European Super Cups, two World Club Championships and above all, three Champions Leagues.

His overall win ratio was 70% over 149 matches, more than Rafael Benitez's 64% from 25, but a little behind Jose Mourinho's 72% of 178 games and Manuel Pellegrini's 75% of 48 matches.

So why did he jump?

According to the man himself, it was because he felt unable to take the team further or even maintain it at the same level next season.

"This is a team that should keep on winning and it needs a change for that," Zidane explained, although he did not go much deeper. "After three years it needs another discourse, another working methodology."

With the average Premier League managerial tenure down to less than half that figure, his reasoning makes sense, although leaving the best team in Europe and a deep-pocketed owner who liked him leaves more question marks.

Real, despite millions of debts, seem incapable of not breaking transfer records each summer. Only when their planned redevelopment of the Bernabeu earlier this year was put on hold did doubts emerge about how relaxed the banks were about Perez's relentless spending spree.

Perez is the club at the end of the day, a president who without a director of football calls all the shots. And while he put faith in Zizou and the two get along well as far as we can tell, did Perez's latest magpie coveting of star players make his manager despair?

Rumours had been circulating for weeks that Neymar was on his way to Madrid, for another telephone number fee and wages, while Zidane apparently wanted Eden Hazard instead. Gossip too was that Perez would resume his quest for Davide de Gea, against the better judgment of his coach.

Robert Lewandowski had been touted as another target for a while, but again we cannot be sure how much the manager wanted him.

Neymar would tick the galactico box to sell shirts and Asian TV contracts, but how would his arrival affect the BBC attacking trio?

As the PSG man plays on the left or right side, in all likelihood it would mean one or both of Gareth Bale and Ronaldo leaving and while Ronaldo seems untouchable, the Welshman is one of Perez's favourites, which meant a dressing-room fracture would occur should the Brazilian be signed.

The BBC cannot last forever, but perhaps Zizou did not want to preside over its demolition.

All things age and in all likelihood the same eleven which beat Liverpool will not win the Champions League next year, although that thought was what was widely expressed after last season's victory in Cardiff.

And yet with Zizou in the dug-out and Perez calling the shots, Real have stayed on top of Europe for the past three seasons, so the more mundane truth is probably that the manager's exit was stress-related.

"I've shot it" was how Brian Clough admitted to losing his touch at Nottingham Forest.

Zidane used the Spanish word 'desgaste' meaning exhausted, fagged out or run out of ideas.  Despite the silverware, he felt all played out.

What must never be forgotten is the sheer attritional nature of that job.

Being head coach of Barcelona or Real entails relentlessly unrealistic expectations, fuelled by an insatiably unintelligent media, who lip-read everything managers and players say, reducing them to covering their mouths with one hand when they speak.

Any defeat is immediately 'a crisis', any sign of unhappiness in a player an 'it's him or me' ultimatum and any poor run of form means a death knell for whoever had been brave or foolhardy enough to take the job in the first place.

A poor two or three games and the knives are out more quickly and sharply than in any other nation.

It is hard to see how anyone can last more than three years in Zidane's position to be frank.

"It's a demanding club," he agreed. "We always want more and more and there is a moment when you think, 'Well what more can I ask from my players?' I want to win and if I don't see clearly that we are going to keep on winning then it is better to change."

He sounded like a man desperate for some peace and cool tranquillity after years in the furnace.

The Bernabeu is an unforgiving environment and Zidane had been there effectively full time since signing as a player in 2001. 17 years seems plenty.

Upon retirement in 2006 he became Perez's advisor and moved up the coaching pyramid, eventually being parachuted in to replace the sacked Rafael Benitez three seasons ago.

Two of his sons came through the Real youth ranks: Enzo is now playing in midfield for Lausanne in Switzerland while Luca is still at the Bernabeu as its third-choice keeper.

Some doubt remains about Zidane, uncertainty produced by his apparent refusal to divulge his feelings openly. Did he always want to be Real's No.1, what was his relationship like with Ronaldo etc.

Zidane never showed his pain, his rage, his frustration or his ultimate desolation with the dream job.

As in the 2006 World Cup final, it all exploded suddenly when he just could not take any more.

One moment he was the world's greatest, shining success in motion. And the next he just stepped off the stage without warning.

When it comes to those with fame and fortune, it is easy to forget the human behind the mask.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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