Two talents of which Florentino Pérez has never lost sight at Real Madrid are sleight of hand and the born-salesman’s understanding that you tempt the punters with the sizzle not the sausage.
The dream, not the reality.
Season ticket holders and media rumbling with discontent? Buy a Galactico.
Still not happy? Sack a manager.
Another scintilla of criticism? Then tell the great unwashed that the debt is negligible. Build a roof on the stadium. Offer loyal Madridistas free seats on the first charter flight to Pluto.
Or put a legend on the non-playing staff. Di Stefano, Butragueño, Valdano.
Anyone else available?
In the summer, the answer was, ‘yes’.
Therefore, as the Champions League resumed this week there was one participant, and only one, whose father herded goats, who has fallen towards earth at 200km per hour, who has suffered death threats, who’s been called “just a walking billboard who prostitutes himself” and who is as handy as pugilist as he is at football.
It’s not Lionel Messi but this man also once committed to his new club on the back of a serviette, he has played in three European Cup finals and two World Cup finals, scoring four times but only managing a win ratio of 40%.
He had a cinema movie made about his divine elegance, his family call him Yaz, you call him Zizou.
Or Zinedine Zidane. Legend.
Right now he is assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, the man who last week admitted: “Things are going to improve from now on because we really couldn’t play any worse.”
But Zidane’s time as a Bernabéu (track)suit has been just as full of uncomfortable wriggling as his first few months as a player here were.
The first Galactico
Zinedine Yazid Zidane was, you could argue, the first of Don Florentino’s Galacticos – the Emperor’s first set of new clothes.
Back in 2000 Luis Figo’s world record move shocked football, set a new transfer record and launched the ‘Galactico’ concept.
But his was a buyout — once Figo’s head had been turned by wages and the exact buyout clause paid Barcelona had absolutely no means of preventing him leaving.
Zidane was the jewel in Juve’s crown. Their team was in transition, the Bianconeri were totally opposed to selling but Florentino seduced the player. Zidane gave his current club a ‘let me go’ ultimatum and Pandora’s Box opened.
Perez began to get a kick from picking the pockets of Europe’s elite clubs, and from the evidence that the process was a kind of football valium for most of those whose philosophies opposed his.
The leaving of Juve (which commenced when Zidane was passed a knapkin at a Monte Carlo banquet on which was written: Wanna come out to play? Hugs n kisses, Florentino) is partly why this is a week of ghosts for the Frenchman.
Madrid initially struggled to get the best from him, to fine tune the team and Zidane into a functioning unit.
Then came Hampden. Then came THAT goal (above) and a ninth European Champion Clubs’ Cup win for Los Blancos. The proudest of boasts.
In that balletic, ballistic instant in Glasgow, Zidane indelibly branded himself as the single most identifiable Madrid image in their European Cup history.
Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas, Hierro, Raul, Roberto Carlos may MEAN more, much more, but the extraordinary goal and the global saturation of the Champions League elevate impact over importance.
But, as with much of Florentino’s reign, it proved to be a sugar-filled snack, not a rich banquet.
Infamy awaits at the World Cup
Zidane had arrived with a yearning for the Champions League to love him, having lost two finals and a semi-final in consecutive years with Juve (to Dortmund, Real Madrid and then Manchester United having led 3-1 at home with an away goal advantage).
After Hampden there was only frustration and humiliation. Madrid were twice knocked out of this tournament, at the semi and round of 16, by a rejuvenated Juventus under Marcello Lippi then Fabio Capello. He bet on red and the wheel came up black. He bet on black and the little while ball landed in a red slot.
There was THAT head-butt. Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy Zidane may have been entitled to moan.
However, the Marseille street-fighter in him erupting in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium wasn’t the last evidence that he has rebel, anarchist, blood flowing in his veins.
When footballers metamorphose from racehorses to plodding clydesdales, player to ex-player, they do so in a wide spectrum of ways.
Zidane goes back to his roots
Media pundit, manager, drinker tend to be the top three. Instead, in 2008 Zidane decided to take his former goat-herd father, whom he loves and respects with mad passion, back to Algeria so that the elder could help the younger discover and value his roots.
He became so committed to the cause of muscular dystrophy that, to raise profile and funds, he flung himself out of a plane. Perhaps if that year’s task had simply been walking on water the surprise might have been lesser.
“I always appreciated our earning power and the first class treatment we received but there was an equal and powerful desire to learn, to discover and to be able to see what normal people are able to use their inquisitiveness about life to achieve.
“But I agreed to fight against the causes and effects of muscular dystrophy. Each year this charity asks famous people to overcome some sort of challenge – my year it was sky-diving.”
Free from responsibility he strapped on a parachute, closed his eyes, prayed … and then jumped.
“I thought I would feel real fear but instead it was only apprehension and adrenalin. You are in the plane going higher and higher and you are concentrating on the instructions from someone who has jumped perhaps 8000 times. Yet in the back of your mind you know there is real danger.
“The moment comes, the door opens and instead of fear you just don’t have an instant to think… which is probably just as well.
“You freefall at 200 kilometres per hour for 50 seconds and during those moments you are truly alone with yourself – the adrenaline is magnificent!”
When Zidane was at Juve although he was paid a king’s ransom and forbidden to do so by contract he’d often need the challenge of street football.
Uncomfortable process back in Madrid
Marcello Lippi recalls: “Technically he is the best player I have ever trained. In training he used to do stuff that was 10 times more spectacular that anything he has ever done on the pitch. I used to watch him with amazement. I would go home at 10 o’clock at night and see him out in the streets of his own neighbourhood playing with his Algerian friends. I would stop and tell him that he shouldn’t be playing and he would reply that these were life-long friends and he couldn’t turn them down.”
Now, like then, his urge to be in contact with the ball is urgent.
That uncomfortable process of getting back into planet Real Madrid, which mirrors his initial months as a player, has included him experimenting with positions as Director of Football, Presidential advisor, scout, ambassador – and now assistant to Ancelotti (once his manager at Juve, pictured above).
But he’s earned his spurs, via the Uefa A license course and his role, now, is to smooth the transition from the Jose Mourinho era.
“I was always the leader of the game,” Zidane points out. It was something I loved, organising everything, influencing the game. Off the pitch less so. I’m naturally pretty reserved and in certain situations I can be pretty quiet.
“One thing I’ve learned is how little I know. When I was doing the coaching course sometimes my head would be aching by the time I got to bed. But that just made me all the more determined to keep at it and keep progressing.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned on the courses is that I don’t have to be really close to someone for the working relationship to flourish. Obviously you need people you trust around you but first and foremost you must look for competent people with the right skills.
“I’ve changed a lot in this respect and nowadays am happy to work with someone I might not know well but who can do the job.
“Previously I worried about being betrayed by someone. It was a fear of putting my trust in someone who might then let me down.”
It seems clear Zidane is worried about how the squad will view him. The man who persuaded Rafa Varane and Isco to choose Madrid (and thus to have a vested interest in them succeeding)? Or ‘just’ Ancelotti’s coaching assistant?
“You can’t be a player’s buddy all the time. If you want him to give you 100 per cent you need to challenge him a bit, even manipulate him. It’s all about knowing when to use the carrot and the stick, when to reward and when to threaten him,” said Zidane.
“I don’t particularly like the word ‘manipulate’ but a coach has to get the best out of his players. At the end of the day chumminess doesn’t work. There’s no point saying to the guy, ‘Do it for me’.”
Tears, frustration and sleepless nights
Juventus, the ‘other’ love of his football life this week. Barcelona, where he scored an epic Champions League semi final goal for Los Blancos back in 2002, at the weekend in Ancelotti’s first Clasico.
Madrid have looked as if their teething troubles under Ancelotti are turning to colic. There have been tears, frustration and sleepless nights. But if 5/1 for the Champions League outright makes them ‘maybe’ winners then it’s fair. The squad is made up of rich fabrics, it’s just the knitting pattern they need now.
Equally IF La Liga slips away from them then their recent Champions League victories have often been accompanied by seasons when they haven’t had to apply all physical and attention to domestic work. They should be in the final shake-up and achieving the ‘Decima’ (their 10th title) isn’t outlandish.
This time at least Florentino is bringing us the real deal.
Zidane is back. Where he belongs.