Zinedine Zidane said he never had any doubts about returning to Real Madrid after he replaced the sacked Santiago Solari as coach on Monday.
“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.”
Two-hundred and eighty three days after resigning, Zinedine Zidane is back as coach of Real Madrid.
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.”
– Extraordinary ‘Zizou’ –
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.”