Sitting alongside a shell-shocked Florentino Perez in May last year, Zidane said Madrid would have problems if he stayed. However, they’ve had problems without him too and now he has returned to fix them.
Winner of three consecutive Champions League titles, Zidane’s exit seemed perfectly timed, even more so given what came next.
Julen Lopetegui was fired after three months and Santiago Solari’s team self-combusted in six days, as defeats to Barcelona, twice, and Ajax rendered their season dead before the middle of March.
Zidane and Jose Mourinho were touted as the preferred options, but most likely in the summer, when freshness and signings might launch a new era from a firmer footing.
Instead, Zidane has been persuaded not only to return, but to do so immediately. He takes over a team with almost nothing to play for in La Liga, 12 points adrift of leaders Barcelona and 10 ahead of Alaves in fifth.
Perhaps in this middle-ground, with pressure neither from above or below, Zidane sees an opportunity to begin the reform. Or perhaps, after nine months away, he was simply unable to resist.
His reunion with the players will almost certainly do wonders for morale. Zidane was popular with almost all of them, save Gareth Bale, whose future at Real Madrid now appears in serious doubt.
Few coaches can rival the trophy haul of this current Madrid squad and perhaps, for Lopetegui and Solari, that was part of the problem.
“He’s one of the greatest people we’ve ever had at this club,” Solari said, at his first press conference in November. “All the adjectives in the world are not good enough to describe Zidane. He’s calm, a great coach, and nobody can compare to him.”
Zidane remains one of the game’s all-time great players, his blend of sublime skill wrapped up in a muscular frame driving France to victory in the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
He came back for them too, returning one year after announcing his international retirement in 2004 and leading France to the 2006 World Cup final, when he was sent off for headbutting the Italian defender Marco Materazzi.
Yet in terms of individual brilliance, his best moment came in a Real Madrid shirt, his winning goal in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen arguably the greatest ever in a European final, perhaps only bettered, ironically, by Bale’s last year.
Affectionately known as “Zizou” in France, he was named World Player of the Year in 1998, 2000 and 2003 in a career that began in France with Cannes and Bordeaux before he moved into the big time with Juventus, where he stayed five years before joining Real in 2001.
May’s third straight Champions League triumph came at the end of less than three full seasons in charge and after he was promoted from his position as coach of Real’s youth team.
“You can’t help but admire what he has done,” France manager Didier Deschamps, who won the World Cup as a player alongside Zidane in 1998, told France’s TF1 after they beat Liverpool in Kiev.
“Already as a player he was extraordinary. He’s had a second life as a coach and he is now an extraordinary coach.”
It is widely expected that one day Zidane will manage France himself, while a return to Juventus, not Madrid, was considered his most likely next move in club football.
After replacing Rafael Benitez in the Santiago Bernabeu dugout in January 2016, Zidane won nine trophies, which amounted to an average of one every 16 games that he was in charge.
It is why Madrid so wanted him back. “I am not the best coach tactically, but I have other things,” Zidane said, before last year’s final in Kiev. “I know very well how the dressing room and a player’s head works, and that for me is very important.”
“When the president called me the first thing I thought was: go,” Zidane said at a press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu. “I could not say no, I never had any doubts about going back.”
Zidane has been given a contract until June 2022, just nine months after he resigned at the end of last season, having led Madrid to an historic third consecutive Champions League triumph.
Solari’s dismissal was expected after three consecutive home defeats – to Barcelona, twice, and Ajax – deemed Madrid’s season all-but over before the middle of March.
But Zidane coming back, with only 11 games left in La Liga and almost nothing to play for, is a surprise, particularly after he left on the incredible high of yet another European triumph.
“I left because a change was needed at the end of last season, for the good of everyone, after winning so much,” Zidane said.
“I returned because the president called me. I love him and I love this club, so here I am.”
Zidane inherits a squad that has evolved even in the short time he has been away, with Cristiano Ronaldo gone and the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Vinicius Junior and Sergio Reguilon all enjoying greater prominence this season.
The challenge will be for Zidane to oversee a period of change in the summer, when older players could be replaced and younger talents brought through.
“I do not want to forget what we won but I also do not forget all the things we did badly last year,” Zidane said.
“We lost in the league and cup, we won the Champions League, fine, but I know where I am.
“We will change things, for sure, for the years to come. But now is not about that – the important thing is I am back. We will have time to talk with the president, with the club, about what we can do.”
Immensely popular with most of the players, Zidane’s appointment will almost certainly lift morale in the dressing room, following a week in which Sergio Ramos has argued with the club’s president Florentino Perez and been involved in a spat with Marcelo.
Gareth Bale was one of the few to suffer during Zidane’s previous spell in charge, with the pair barely on speaking terms in the run-up to the Champions League final.
Bale’s future now appears in serious doubt unless their relationship can be quickly repaired.
Instead it was Ronaldo that departed and Zidane now takes over a team missing the Portuguese’s goals and in need of reform.
On the possibility of Ronaldo following him back to Madrid, Zidane said: “That is not the issue for today. We have 11 games to play, then we will see. We all know Cristiano, his history at this club is one of the best. But today is not for talking about these things.”
Despite Madrid’s dominance in the Champions League, there is ground to make up in La Liga, where Barcelona are on course to seal their eighth league title in 11 years.
Madrid sit 12 points adrift of them in the table despite a 4-1 victory over Real Valladolid on Sunday, which proved to be Solari’s final game in charge.
Familiar problems, including a lack of goals and a leaky defence, resurfaced in February as a defeat at home to Girona was quickly followed by losses to Barcelona in the league and cup, and humiliation by Ajax in the last 16 of the Champions League.
“I do not blame anybody,” Zidane added. “(Julen) Lopetegui and Solari wanted to do the best for the club. It went how it went. The only thing now is to look forward.”
Real Madrid’s announcement that Zinedine Zidane was returning to replace sacked Santiago Solari on Monday night overshadowed captain Sergio Ramos taking to social media to address a disastrous week endured by the club.
Ramos, via a series of tweets, addressed rumours of dressing room bust-ups with left-back Marcelo and the club president Florentino Perez.
Los Blancos lost to bitter rivals Barcelona twice in four days, the first a 3-0 defeat that sent them out of the Copa del Rey, followed by a 1-0 loss in La Liga that left them 12 points behind their old foes, killing all chances of a late run for the league title.
While those two losses effectively ruled them out of the running for two trophies, there was a chance of a third, in the Champions League, where they held a 2-1 lead over Ajax ahead of the second leg at home.
But a stunning 4-1 loss to the Dutch side meant they crashed out of the competition that always seems to matter the most at Madrid, and brought the feeling that the result was an end of an era, with Real having won the competition a historic three straight times and four times in five seasons from 2013/14 to 2017/18.
That all three of these losses came at home, in the space of a week, added to the growing discontent at the club.
It was after the loss to Ajax that Ramos, who was suspended having admitted to deliberately getting a yellow card in the dying moments in the first leg to miss the second leg and be available for a quarter-final, was reportedly involved in a heated argument with Perez, with the club president supposedly threatening to sack the defender.
Ramos is alleged to have replied that he’d be happy to leave as soon as he was paid whatever he was due over the remainder of his club contract, before angrily reminding Perez of his contributions to Madrid since joining in 2005.
The centre-back was also suspended for Madrid’s most recent game, against Real Valladolid on Sunday, thanks to an accumulation of yellow cards in domestic football, but travelled with the squad for the game in anyway.
On Monday, Ramos decided to address the storm that has engulfed the club – hours before the club made the announcement that Zinedine Zidane was to replace Santiago Solari has manager having overseen a disastrous month.
The 32-year-old admitted that the yellow card in Amsterdam that ruled him out of the second leg against Ajax was a mistake and that he took the blame “200%”, before addressing criticism over his decision to attend that game anyway to film a documentary being made about his career.
But the football world will be most interested in his reaction to reports regarding the dust-ups with Perez and Marcelo. Ramos said the latter, who has been linked with an exit from the club after losing his place in Solari’s first-choice XI, is “like a brother to me”, adding that it was normal for players to confront each other when necessary given the pressure they face.
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As footballers we like to do our talking on the pitch but this season is not turning out that way. Recent events have been disastrous and I’m not hiding. We are not hiding. We the players are primarily responsible and I, as captain, more than anyone. That's why I thought that the most honest way to answer the questions that are circulating around us would be to tackle them directly. Was the yellow card in Amsterdam an error? Absolutely it was an error and I take the blame 200%. Why did you record the documentary? There are certain commitments made and it never remotely went through my head that the game could have turned out as it did. The recording itself was scaled down as the game went on. Did you argue with the President in the dressing room? Dressing room issues are discussed and resolved in the dressing room. There's no problem whatsoever and everybody has the same interest: Real Madrid. Did you address your teammates and criticize them? We always talk and motivate each other in the dressing room and always in a constructive way. Did you have a confrontation with Marcelo? We have exchanges in every training session. It's part of working with pressure. But it’s just an anecdote like so many others that happen from day to day. @Marcelotwelve is like a brother to me. Why did you travel to Valladolid? Because I wanted to be close and support my teammates. What's happening with the coach? It’s a decision that’s not ours to make and in which we never interfere. We have enormous respect for the position and we always support the Real Madrid coach. These reflections are, without doubt, the result of a deeply disappointing season but if success didn’t stop us, we're not going to let defeat stop us. It's our obligation to carry on, to work and to evolve. And to remember that some of us are lucky enough to play for @realmadrid, some of us are lucky enough to form part of its history, but #RealMadrid was, is and will always be #RealMadrid. No one name makes the legend of Real Madrid, but we have all written that legend together. Together we have to work for the future and restore our hope. Madridista Commitment. #HalaMadrid
As for Perez, Ramos said: “Dressing room issues are discussed and resolved in the dressing room. There’s no problem whatsoever and everybody has the same interest: Real Madrid.”
The club captain ended by acknowledging that this has been a “deeply disappointing season” but that he and his team-mates were “lucky enough to play for Real Madrid, lucky enough to form part of the history of Real Madrid”.
“Real Madrid, was, is and will always be Real Madrid, but we have all written that legend together,” he concluded.