Zinedine Zidane bows out at the very top at Real Madrid. Whoever follows him has a hard act to follow
There has been a recent trend among the best young managers in Spain to step down when they are at the top. The managerial fuse at Barcelona and Real Madrid is a short one – and the top managers know it. Pep Guardiola called time on his Barca career in 2012 after four years in charge when his side were European champions. The Catalan took a year’s sabbatical in New York, learned English, then German, ahead of joining Bayern Munich.
Luis Enrique did similar after his hugely successful three years in charge at Camp Nou between 2014-17. Like Guardiola, the job had worn him down, like Guardiola he left with smiles rather than revealing the stresses and frustrations, the tension of working with star players every day and of having to compromise their principles to appease players.
Enrique had little to prove; he didn’t need the money and he wanted a year where he, too, could polish his English ahead of a return to management, spend more time with his family and friends and then wait for the offers to come in. He is quite content cycling most days close to his home by the coast south of Barcelona.
Zinedine Zidane, 45, has quit with Real Madrid at the very top. The Frenchman has been in charge for less than three years and has won three Uefa Champions Leagues, the most recent of which was secured on Saturday in Kiev.
Zidane also saw his team crowned Fifa Club World Cup champions - the most recent of which was won six months ago in Abu Dhabi - twice and won La Liga in 2017, the trophy he was most proud of even though the Champions League is seen as more important. He leaves a the Bernabeu a hero and on his own terms. He knows there is always an appetite for him to return, that the bridge hasn’t been burned.
“I am doing this for the good of this team, for this club,” Zidane explained in a hastily arranged press conference at Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground. “It would have been difficult for me to win again next year. There have been good moments, but also difficult times. I do not forget that. And at this club you must know this: I do not want to start a season and have a bad time; I want to end with Real Madrid when everything is going well. I did it as a player, and now again as a coach. This the right moment to end things well.”
Managing Madrid or Barcelona would put a vast strain on anybody. Bobby Robson and Terry Venables, who both managed at the top level in England, said it was far more stressful in Catalunya.
Guardiola aged significantly in his four years and while Enrique chose to distance himself from the media, to be as dispassionate as possible, the pressure still told.
Zidane felt he had to step down so that “this team must continue winning. It needs a change that will be good for everyone. The team needs another methodology and that is why I have made this decision. For me and for everyone, today, a change is needed and that is why I have reached this decision. I am grateful to the fans.”
Zidane explained some of his reasoning.
“There are difficult moments when you can wonder whether you are the right person still,” he said. “I do not forget the hard times, as well as the good times, and that makes you reflect. And this is the right moment to leave. The players need a change; I want to thank them too, as in the end they are the ones who fight on the pitch. This is a demanding club; it’s not easy for them, with this great history.”
The Frenchman, a legendary Madrid player, also described some of the burden that rests on the players.
“We always want more from the players, and a moment comes when I cannot ask them for more,” he said. “They need another voice, to return to winning again.”
Madrid have been serial winners and they were even before Zidane took control. Their squad remains packed with experience and they will get a top manager to replace Zidane. Yet the Frenchman has set the bar so high that it’s going to be almost impossible for whoever follows him to compete with his achievements.