Zinedine Zidane’s shock resignation as Real Madrid coach yesterday took almost everyone by surprise — but it also made a huge amount of sense once he had explained a decision that looks a lot more positive for him personally than the club.
The aftermath of Madrid beating Liverpool 3-1 in Kiev last weekend to seal a third successive Champions League victory had been dominated by galacticos Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo talking about leaving the club, but nobody had even thought to ask Zidane if he was also considering his future.
The former galactico won nine trophies in just two and a half years in charge, making history last year when his Madrid side became the first team to retain the Champions League since the competition’s early 1990s expansion, then last weekend securing the first European Cup ‘three in a row’ since the mid-1970s.
But even as Blancos fans and pundits were laughing at how such an achievement dwarfed Barcelona winning the 2017/18 La Liga and Copa del Rey double, Zidane himself had clearly seen warning signs throughout the most recent campaign.
“I do not forget the hard times and that makes you reflect,” he told reporters at yesterday’s snap farewell news conference in the Spanish capital.
“This is the right moment to leave. The players need a change, a different voice.
"If I do not see clearly that we are going to continue winning, it is better to step aside, best for the team, for the club, for me, for everyone...”
In retrospect, the Frenchman had prepared the ground for this exit at different times during recent months, saying that he did not know what the future held.
He had been especially low after difficult moments such as December’s 3-0 La Liga Clasico defeat at home to Barca, and January’s humiliating Copa del Rey exit at the Bernabeu against humble neighbours Leganes.
Zidane also must have seen that Madrid rode their luck through recent months to win that third Champions League trophy.
Stars like Ronaldo and Bale made big contributions in decisive moments, but Madrid also benefitted from injuries to important opposition players, key refereeing decisions going their way, and rival goalkeepers making career-defining mistakes.
During his time in charge, Zidane has often spoken about how domestic competitions are the real measure of a team’s worth.
Just last weekend in Kiev he said the biggest satisfaction he got from his job was knowing he gave everything he could to his day-to-day work, and that he did not look for any external validation. The current Madrid squad remain capable of peaking for high-profile games when immediate glory is close.
But home defeats to teams like Real Betis and Villarreal last season showed their week to week focus had been lacking.
An impressively cool-headed analysis led Zidane to decide now is the right time for someone else to take over.
He pointed out it is difficult for any coach to sustain their message past three seasons at the biggest clubs, no matter how many trophies they win, using the same Spanish word ‘desgaste’ (which means ‘worn out’ or ‘exhausted’) that Pep Guardiola uttered when leaving the Barca job back in 2012.
While also suggesting that to stay on would have been, for him personally, an abdication of responsibility.
“After three years it is difficult to keep coaching, above all having won three Champions Leagues,” Zidane said.
This was a useful reminder that Zidane’s retirement as a player had also surprised.
In 2006, aged just 33, he told Madrid he was hanging up his boots after that year’s World Cup, despite having another year left on his contract.
He will forfeit many more millions by resigning now, but more importantly will avoid becoming unhappy with the standard of his own work.
The now 45-year-old has achieved what is beyond most top level players or managers — to exit the big stage at a moment of their own choosing.
Bernabeu history is littered with former heroes who were forced out against their will, from Alfredo Di Stefano to Iker Casillas, and a similar fate may yet still await current superstars Ronaldo and Bale.
Zidane though has chosen his moment perfectly, leaving the club exactly on his own terms, with his relationship with all involved unbroken.
How it leaves Madrid ahead of next season still remains to be seen.
France coach Didier Deschamps last night said he fully expects Zinedine Zidane to take charge of Les Bleus one day. “He will be coach at some point. When? I cannot say, but that seems logical to me. It will happen when it happens.”
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