"Zinedine Zidane was my most emblematic signing and will be a great coach. I am sure that if he wants to be, he will be Real Madrid coach," said Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez. "But not today."
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day. That is the assumption. There has long been a sense of inevitability about Zidane becoming Madrid coach, and this week that inevitability felt imminent... at least until Jose Mourinho got sacked by Chelsea and overtook him, racing onto the front pages. In the days before Madrid's two big sports dailies ran with the same headline -- "Mourinho on the loose" -- they had run on the same man. "Ready," said Marca, with a picture of Zidane. "Zidane 72 percent," said AS.
The 72 percent in question were the Real Madrid fans who wanted the Frenchman to take over the first team now. Another headline had him "warming up on the touchline," preparing to substitute Rafa Benítez. Over in France, meanwhile, L'Equipe ran with "Real votes Zidane." Benítez could be soon sacked, they said, and his replacement will be ZZ. One day. One day soon?
By Friday morning, it felt as if that day had got further away but had not entirely gone away, postponed until further notice. Mourinho had pushed Zidane from the covers, although, tellingly, the polls asking whether fans wanted him showed a 50-50 split, some way from the overwhelming support Zidane had enjoyed -- a significant percentage of the squad could imagine nothing worse. Meanwhile, the night before Pérez had said that neither of them would be taking over, certainly not yet.
"Benítez is not a problem; Benítez is the solution," Pérez insisted, unconvincingly. However much stories of tensions get denied, some players are not convinced, either. Benítez is a meticulous, serious, studious coach -- even his detractors recognise that -- but winning over players is not his strength. About the only thing that could get them fully behind Benítez now, apart from holding a knife, of course, is the prospect of the alternative being Mourinho.
Some players call Benítez "the No. 10." It is a reference to the fact that, like Mourinho, he never had a professional playing career. It connects to their irritation at the way that he tries to correct them, as if he knows better. As coach, it's possible that he does; just don't try telling them that. That probably says more about them and their prejudices than it does about him, but it is a reality and it is revealing. With Zidane, there would be no such issue, of course.
If Benítez is the No. 10, so too is Zidane -- only without the sarcasm.
There is also something about Zidane; there's a quiet authority about him, a presence. As a player he did not talk much, but he led. And when he did talk, they listened.
Asked how Johan Cruyff convinced players to follow him even when they thought he was a bit mad, Txiki Begiristain, the former Barcelona midfielder and current sporting director at Manchester City, replied "Because he's Johan Cruyff!" With Zidane, there is an element of that, too. Not many of that 72 percent know much about Zidane the coach but, well, it's Zidane. And that does matter, not least to the players.
What Benítez did not achieve as a player means that for some, the default response to what he says is (wrongly) to ignore; what Zidane did achieve as a player means that for most, the default response to what he says is (rightly) to listen. When he worked with the Madrid squad as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti, much of his work with the players was one-on-one, and he was popular, his relationship with the squad strong. Ancelotti was quick to praise him.
There are other qualities, too. Zidane was always seen as an elegant, almost effortless player, but the impression was false. Effortless? Hardly. He competed, he worked, he sweated. It annoyed him that people saw him almost as a ballet dancer rather than a sportsman, all grace and balance, gift over graft. "If people say I played in a way that's elegant, great. It's nice that they say that. But it is uncomfortable for me," he admitted. "I'm not there to show things, to perform; I'm there to win."
Not for show -- for real. Zidane was there to win, to compete, to do something tangible. There are always compromises to be made, alliances to be sought and political games to be played -- especially at Madrid -- but it is an attitude that can be seen in the way Zidane built his playing career. It is also, perhaps even more significantly, something that can be seen in the way he has built his career since he retired from playing.
In 2009, he was adviser to Real Madrid's returning president, Florentino Pérez; then he became first team adviser; then, in July 2011, sporting director. In truth, they were largely symbolic posts and largely empty ones, too. For Pérez, it was enough to have him around and have him visible because his symbolic and political power remained high.
There is something in Pérez's remark from this week: "Zinedine Zidane was my most emblematic signing." He didn't actually need to do anything, not least because real decisions remained presidential prerogative. In fact, an active role brought risks. What if it didn't work out?
But Zidane wanted to compete, to do something tangible, to take those risks. Otherwise, it just would not be real. The trouble is, of course, that doing something real brings you into conflict with others and face to face with realities that are not always easy ones. Zidane, though, was determined.
In the short term, a kind of "active break" was attractive, especially for someone who by his own admission had finished his playing career tired, worn out and needing to disconnect. Stress free, well paid, an easy life -- not doing a huge amount in truth. Being associated with Madrid, and with Pérez, is always valuable, too. Doors would open, opportunities. But in the long term, it could not satisfy him.
Sure, Zidane was still in football, but he wasn't really
"I had six years off," he said. "And I was busy, doing things, but you do think 'What I am doing? Really?' What I like is football, what I understand is football, what I am good at is football. What can I do? Can I give something to someone? Can I give something back?"
And so he began. He became assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, then he took over Real Madrid Castilla, the club's B team. It was all about preparation, about doing it right, approaching and preparing properly. He took his coaching badges; he challenged himself. He went to see people, to talk to them and listen to them. Pep Guardiola was among them; the parallels between their paths were clear. Slowly, his ideas sharpened.
"I don't know if I will be any good as coach, but at least I want to know," Zidane said. So he started there, on a qualification course. Not the short version, the long version. "The things I had in my head but could not seem to clarify have been defined now: I know what I want to do and how," he said as he undertook his training. Last season he coached Castilla without the badges he formally needed to do so, officially as the No. 2 but in reality running the team. Now he has completed the course.
Zidane's personality evolved too. The shyness he used to have had gone, so said the president of Bordeaux who tried to sign him in the summer. But he preferred to stay with Castilla. His preparation has been more complete than he might have imagined, as well: a mini-Madrid in every way, for good and bad.
Staying at Madrid and with Castilla was probably a way of staying close to the opportunities, too. Zidane would rather take over a team in the summer, but deep down he must have known that if results went against Benítez, the chance to take over the first team might come sooner. And the chance to coach Madrid is a massive one.
If he stayed inside the club, he would be the natural substitute. Or one of them, at least: the signing of the former Celta, Deportivo and Zaragoza manager Víctor Fernández as head of the youth system in the summer was seen by many within the club's coaching hierarchy as a way of having someone ready to take over in the event of an emergency -- someone slotted in above Zidane.
That appointment underlined that the succession was not (and is not) as smooth as it might appear; it highlights why turning to Zidane is not quite such an automatic or unanimous choice as it can look. Pérez might have said that one day Zidane would be first team and that day may well arrive sooner rather than later, but on one level he has to say that. Zidane's desire has been so clear, and Pérez knows that, when it comes to it, it might be the most politically expedient decision to take.
But he does have doubts, not least because he has doubts about every coach: Pérez does not believe in any of them. Things did not go well with Castilla last season, although they have been far better this time round.
Worse still is that things did not go well with Martin Odegaard, Castilla's very own galáctico, protected and promoted by the board but not, in the end, by the coach who was unconvinced and uncomfortable with a setup in which a 16-year-old trained with the first team and played in the second by decree. That created tension, and, though it was momentary, it was coach Zidane who took responsibility for his team, who wanted to compete and do things right but then found backs turned and the finger of blame pointing his way.
It's just another lesson that a manager has to learn. Maybe even the most important lesson of all.