With Champions League win, it is time to give Zidane his due
A few years ago, after their playing careers had ended, Adidas had Zinédine Zidane and David Beckham interview one another.
One supposes this very bad idea was hailed as a very good one in some boardroom or other – the two emblematic European players of their generation, going head to head one last time and really laying it all out there.
Instead, we were treated to exchanges such as, “What do you like to do after a bad day?”, “See my kids.” and “Do you have any regrets?” “Not really. Do you?” “No, me neither.”
These two giants came together to create the Large Hadron Collider of boredom.
You could see Beckham trying, but Zidane looked in danger of dozing off. He’s always looked like that. Even in the midst of some balletic piece of on-field genius, Zidane’s expression never changed – sleepy, sloe-eyed, as if he was wondering whether he’d left the stove on as he pirouetted through three opponents at midfield.
Beckham was the try-hard type. Zidane, his superior by several orders of magnitude, was the natural. His game never did seem to require effort. Zidane’s near-comatose public persona was in keeping with that approach.
You will recall that Zidane picked a poor time to let the raging lunatic that lives in all of us out for a stroll – the final of the 2006 World Cup. Deciding to headbutt Marco Materazzi in the midst of a tie game may have been the most notable final act of any professional sporting career.
Just as he retired, Zidane was letting us all know that he had cared all along. In retrospect, that seems like the point.
The headbutting happened just before social media really took off, and may have been the last time everyone agreed on a contentious sporting moment, rather than feel the tedious need to think and rethink and then rethink again our opinion of it. Zidane had been so great, we were all okay with him throwing a snit and then leaving for good. He was owed that much.
Unlike most former stars, he seemed to take to retirement. He remained a lucrative brand without having to do much. The government of Qatar reportedly paid him €11-million ($16.7-million) to appear in a five-minute video promoting their World Cup bid. “I think it’s time for the Middle East to host the World Cup,” Zidane said.
Why this mattered more coming from a man of French and African heritage was not explained. Zidane had said so little during his career that any little crumbs delivered once it was over seemed like hard-won wisdom. Again, he was owed it.
After they’d won the bid, the Qataris erected an enormous statue of Zidane in the capital, Doha. It showed him mid-headbutt. It was hidden away in a local museum after religious conservatives complained that it promoted idolatry.
Eventually, Zidane grew bored and wandered back to Madrid, the scene of his greatest professional successes. For a while, he occupied some nebulous advisory role – presumably, as a Ronaldo whisperer. But then, unexpectedly, he began to coach.
It has become rather the done thing lately to pull soccer managers from playing obscurity. The thinking goes that the worse they were, the more attention they must have paid to everything that was going on. Many of the world’s most obsessed over soccer bosses – Jose Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Unai Emery – fit into the ‘crap soccer player/deep thinker’ model.
“I was very average … really quick and a good header, but that was it,” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp once said. “Unfortunately, the ball spent most of the time on the ground.”
There are exceptions to this trend – Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone – but none of them were anywhere close to Zidane’s playing level.
Best-in-the-world-type players tend to make terrible teachers. Diego Maradona’s many disastrous attempts at fusing his chaotic personal style onto a corporate role and then watching the whole thing spontaneously combust come to mind.
Zidane coached Real Madrid’s reserve team for a couple of years. When the senior club had one of its habitual mid-season fits and fired the manager, Zidane was the only viable candidate available. Real was in trouble, entering one of its frequent states of performative imbalance, which is usually followed by a roster bloodletting. It was assumed Zidane would fail.
Instead, he introduced a revolutionary idea to what might be team sport’s most talented roster – he let the players play as they liked. Zidane’s tactical system is that he has no rigid system. The setup is basic, and the players are allowed to adapt themselves to circumstances. Zidane doesn’t much more than give halftime pep talks and provide a lot of one-on-one facetime. He is an anti-coach.
(It should be noted that it’s a lot easier to coach this way when your combined roster is worth about a billion dollars.)
As Juventus put the squeeze on Zidane’s squad during Saturday’s Champions League final, Real reacted like a body fighting an infection. The players absorbed punishment for most of the first half, and then fought back in numbers. There was no seeming plan to Real’s swooping attacks, which made them profoundly difficult to combat. This tactical jiu-jitsu won Zidane’s Real its second consecutive European title.
Throughout the game, Zidane was unusually emphatic. His sideline uniform – black suit, too-short tie and a shirt that is always pulling itself out of his pants – grew more and more rumpled as Zidane leaped about in the coach’s box like a kid practising karate. But he wasn’t coaching, as such. He was pretending to play.
Afterward, Real’s president said Zidane has “a job for life.” Zidane was pressed for reassurances that he will stay on.
“I can’t say that I will stay the rest of my life, but … I feel part of the furniture,” Zidane said.
He has been the best player in the world. Right now, based on results, he is the best manager in it. It’s a unique performance feat from a man who has never made much of an impression aside from how he handles the game itself.
Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe that’s also why everyone missed the auspiciousness of his return. They won’t do that again.
Whatever it is Zidane wants to do going forward, he’s definitely owed that now.