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never far away at Real Madrid
It might look like a strange moment but it is the right moment,” Zinedine Zidane said. And so, 878 days after taking over as manager and only five since he led them to the European Cup again, he walked away from Real Madrid. During the press conference at which he announced the decision, the president, Florentino Pérez, sitting alongside him wearing a dark suit and a darker look, Zidane was repeatedly asked if things might have been different.
Mostly he said “no”
and the president too insisted there was no point trying to change his mind. And yet at the very end the Frenchman was asked if he might have stayed had Real lost the Champions League final in Kiev instead of winning it, and that time he smiled.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe,” he added, pausing and smiling. “Maybe.” Then he got up, shook the president’s hand and walked through the door at the side of the press room at the Valdebebas training ground. As he went there was applause. Zidane has spent a lot of time there over the last two and a half years, as
elegant as he was when he played, and there was something in that smile – familiar, disarming – and in the response.
His departure was, Pérez said, “absolutely unexpected” but, while it may sound odd, victory over Liverpool made it easier; it helped make it right. “How hard it is to say goodbye to Madrid,” Álvaro Arbeloa commented. “No one ever did it better.”
If the question is why did Zidane walk away, the answer is, in part, simple: because he
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This way the decision was his; he could control the moment, the way it happened, the feeling as he walked out. He left on his terms and at the top. Remember me like this, a European champion as a manager, just as he was when he played, just as he was when he was the assistant to Carlo Ancelotti. Zidane has never not won the European Cup as manager.
“You’re going but your legacy can never be erased,” Sergio Ramos said. The day Zidane took over he was asked what constitutes success. “Winning everything,” he said. Three years on he has. With nine titles in total, one every 16 games on average, this is the most successful period in Real’s modern history. No manager has matched this – even at Real no manager has won three European Cups. It does not get any better.
Zidane knew it could have got worse, much worse. He feared it would and he does not like losing. He knows it is remarkable to have reached this point and to have got here with such goodwill, universally admired. Few Real managers have been as well liked by those on the outside.
The elegance and the timidity, the grace and the apparently effortless, always hid the fact Zidane saw himself above all as a competitor. When he retired as a player, he later admitted, that he did so earlier than he originally imagined: Real had not won anything for three years, their worst run in half a century, and he felt responsible for that. He was tired of it all, sure, but he might have held on had he not experienced failure from within. “I wanted to
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transmit serenity, work, commitment,” he said, “but there is a moment when, after three years, it is hard to keep doing what you do. I want to win and, if I don’t see clearly that we’re going to keep on winning, then it is best to change and not do anything stupid.”
He described the decision as for everyone’s benefit. “After three years [Real] need another discourse, another working methodology, and that’s why I took this decision,” he said. “I think it’s the moment to go and I also think the players need a change. They’re the ones who fight on the pitch. It’s not easy for them; it’s a demanding club, a club with a huge history and the players are always squeezed, we always want more and more and there is a moment
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when you think: ‘Well, what more can I ask of my players?’”
But there was more to it than that. He knew, too, of the doubts he can never quite shake off, about the precariousness of the manager’s role at the Bernabéu; he knew some doubted
his weight in all this success – and not just from outside the club. There was something a little pointed when, on the eve of the final, he said: “I’m not the best tactical coach.” He cannot be unaware of the criticisms made of him during a season in which Real finished 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganés. That defeat hurt, he admitted; it was his “worst moment”.
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