Few Champions League goals have been as memorable as Zinedine Zidane’s left-footed volley from just inside the box in the 2002 final against Bayer Leverkusen. It has been almost 14 years since that strike, but the goal still has a folklore of its own. Later, Zidane would recall the goal as the pivotal moment of his career.
“I don’t plan those goals – you just have to be ready when the opportunity appears. I hit it —precisely, quickly and just right. I remember thinking how lucky I was to catch the ball at the right angle and height.”
Aged 43, Zidane is now faced with another, infinitely more difficult opportunity. This time however, he will not be on the pitch, and he will need more than just luck. On 4 January, Florentino Pérez handed over the reins to the Frenchman after sacking the immensely unpopular Rafa Benitez. Tonight, he takes charge of his first game against Deportivo.
It is not so much a cross as a complete curveball for Zidane, whose only previous managerial role had been at Castilla, Real Madrid’s B team. For Pérez, appointing the former Galactico was hardly a difficult decision. Benitez was the pair of boring black shoes which Pérez did not make an effort to wear in, whilst Zidane was an impulse buy, a pair of shiny white trainers which the president didn’t even need to try on.
It is one thing to manage a youth team in the third tier of Spanish football, however, and quite another to be in charge of the most demanding club in world football. Yes, he will have the fans and players on his side, initially at least, but just how long this optimism will last among the impatient Bernabéu faithful is debatable. Zidane may be best remembered at Real for that match-winning volley, but it is easy to forget this is the same crowd who booed him six months after he arrived at the club. How long will the so-called honeymoon phase last?
Clearly, longer than Benitez’s. The former Napoli manager was never really going to live up to Ancelotti’s popularity (the decision to sack the Italian is still unfathomable), and the writing was on the wall after Real’s 4-0 drubbing in the November Clásico.
Zidane now has the chance to fix Madrid’s slump. There will probably be more of a focus on youth, and a view to playing more expansive, attractive football than the dreary scraps of play Benitez’s team put together during his tenure. James Rodriguez and Isco could be brought back in from the cold, while he will almost certainly be more involved in training than Benitez, who Real’s primadonnas mockingly referred to as ‘No10’ due to the fact he had never been a professional but still tried to tell the players what to do.
With his background, Zidane will have none of these insecurities. When he was Ancelotti’s assistant manager, commentators would occasionally make passing remarks on how the Italian manager wished Zidane was on the pitch, and perhaps it is this which represents his greatest problem – namely the transition from player to manager. He is still finding his feet as a coach, and many fans will expect Zizou to pick up where he left off as a player, even if it is a completely unfair assumption.
On another level the appointment could be seen as Pérez trying too hard to copy Madrid’s rivals. The example of former Barca player Pep Guardiola’s promotion from B team boss to treble winner is the one most frequently referenced, and many see Zidane as Los Blancos’ answer. Luis Enrique has followed a similar path, while closer to the Bernabéu Diego Simeone’s effect on Atlético since his return can’t have gone unnoticed. The fact that Real are currently being beaten on both fronts must rankle with the president, and so this could be Pérez’s way of saying ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.
For Zidane, the expectation to live up to the likes of Guardiola may prove to be too much, though the Frenchman himself has said that he wants to be “the coach I want to be” rather than modelling himself on others. His appointment was largely superficial, but there are reasons for enthusiasm. It could be a disaster, it could mark the beginning of something special. It is precisely this uncertainty which makes it so exciting.