When Zinedine Zidane appeared alongside Emilio Butragueno to be presented as Real Madrid’s new manager, he made a simple vow which said everything, and simultaneously nothing. “I have to do this the Zidane way,” said one of the most famous football men on the planet, and yet an unknown quantity in management. Less than 18 months later, on the eve of the Champions League final, we are close to understanding the full implication of what the “Zidane way” means.
Since the reformulation of the European Cup in 1992, retaining the trophy has become something of a holy grail, never to be captured. Some of the great names of coaching have tried and failed: Johan Cruyff, Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, amongst others. But in his first full season as a manager, Zidane is 90 minutes away from doing what the combined intellect of the past quarter of a century of coaching has been unable to do. Not only that: beating Juventus in the final in Cardiff would also give Real Madrid their first Liga-European Cup double for 59 years. It would be an achievement for the ages.
Back-to-back Champions Leagues are the prize for Real Madrid, and a haul of three in four years, which would represent the fourth most dominant spell in the history of the competition. Only Bayern Munich and Ajax, with their three consecutive titles each in the 1970s, and of course Real Madrid’s run of five consecutive wins up to 1960, have ever exceeded such an imperial phase. Zidane was assistant to Ancelotti in Lisbon in 2014 when Real Madrid defeated Atletico Madrid but, in the wake of Rafa Benitez’s sacking, graduated to the top job last summer when Atleti were beaten again in Milan. Now Cardiff is the setting for the next act in this amazing story.
In his press conference ahead of the meeting with his former club Juventus, Zidane was reminded of these stellar occasions, and one career-defining night in Glasgow in 2003 when he plucked a high ball out of the air and sent it into the top corner of Bayer Leverkusen’s net with a remarkable volley. “My feelings… if you'd said I was going to live all this when I was a child, I wouldn't have believed you,” he said. “But I'm living it and I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying what's happening to all of us – I'm just the coach, I'm just one more. It's really beautiful to be able to play the final again, like we did in Milan, and we're ready to play.”
It is clear that the 'Zidane way' correlates perfectly with Real Madrid’s best traditions: which are to win, and to win in style. He also implicitly understands the culture of the club. There were knowing chuckles amongst local journalists when he playfully said on Friday evening: “There’s no pressure. Real Madrid knows how to feed from this pressure, we are living under it. I felt it as a player and now as a coach. You journalists know what this club is like… People say we are always favourites.”
But the 'Zidane way' is also defined in opposition to the most infamous Madrid tradition of modern times, of which Zidane is himself a product: the Galactico project. Zidane’s goal at Hampden Park 15 years ago was supposed to usher in a period of European dominance for Madrid, as Florentino Perez greedily added Ronaldo and David Beckham to Zidane and Luis Figo, yet the plan went horribly awry. No dynasty was established, but now Zidane can create one of his own.
So what has changed? Madrid are still infused with super-charged signings: Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo are the second and third most expensive players of all time; James Rodriguez narrowly misses out on the top five. It would be perverse to say the club's riches are not a big factor in all of this. But Zidane’s Madrid is different to the Galactico era. Notably, it is not beholden to a strict two-tier hierarchy, especially this season where the coach has rotated to excellent effect and Madrid effectively permitted their second string to lead them to the title in the final few weeks.
Ronaldo has even spent significant time on the bench - a plan devised, with no little success, to get him in peak condition for this showpiece event - and with Isco also edging out Bale to start in Cardiff, admittedly with the assistance of the Welshman’s injury problems, there is a sense of a meritocracy about Madrid too.
Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Zinedine Zidane, coach of Real Madrid attend a press conference prior to the UEFA Champions League Final between Juventus and Real Madrid
Image credit: Getty Images
Isco’s flourishing role as a playmaker speaks to a stylistic change overseen by Zidane - the Spaniard will likely operate as a central playmaker behind Karim Benzema and Ronaldo, rather than the 4-3-3 which previously dominated - but the 'Zidane way' is more of a psychological and motivational journey than any kind of tactical revolution or overarching philosophy. In that, he surely owes a lot to his former mentor Ancelotti, a chameleon capable of adapting to any new environment and winning trophies. It is about maximising and indulging talent. As Zidane explained back in January 2016: “A coach has to be close to his players – that is the most important thing, a good relationship with them all.”
It has worked. Sergio Ramos and Marcelo both spoke in glowing terms of their manager in Cardiff. “He arrived quietly making no noise at all at a time when Real Madrid had to win everything,” said Marcelo, while the captain added: “We were proud on the very first day he came. We hope that he will be with us as long as possible, he is a key component for us.”
Even Juventus took time to throw themselves at the altar of Zizou. Gianluigi Buffon, who played in Zidane’s final match, told a press conference: “Eleven years have elapsed since the 2006 (World Cup) final and I am not surprised Zidane is now Real Madrid coach. He has kept his skills as a coach - he is a winner and he is a winner as a coach, but in life he hasn’t won all the time…”
It is certainly true - and the memory of his attack on Marco Materazzi in 2006 was hanging in the air as the words came out of Buffon’s mouth - but not recently. Not since he humbly accepted the chance to show his qualities as a manager and started to chart a new course. If he does what no other man has on Saturday night, it will be clear to all that, just as it was in his playing days, the ‘Zidane way’ is one of true managerial greatness.