"We're all just passing through," Santiago Solari said. "In life, and in this profession all the more so."
It was Tuesday afternoon, and Solari had recently been named Real Madrid's manager, replacing Julen Lopetegui, who had been sacked only 138 days after taking the job and 139 days after being dismissed from his previous position as manager of the Spanish national team. Lopetegui had lasted a mere 14 games, and now he was gone. It is the way of the world.
This world, certainly. Solari's world now, and always. Rafa Benítez was Madrid's manager for 25 games. Manuel Pellegrini lasted 48. Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, 33. Vanderlei Luxemburgo, 45. Mariano Garcia Remon, 20. Jose Antonio Camacho lasted just six, which was still better than the first time he coached Real Madrid -- when he didn't make it to the first. Of the 12 managers Madrid have had under Florentino Perez's presidency, only four were there over a year.
Solari has been named interim manager; league rules state that he can be there for only two weeks, meaning matches against Melilla, Valladolid, Viktoria Plzen and Celta Vigo before a permanent decision will have to be made. Insofar as any decision is ever permanent in football. Solari will get only four games. Unless ...
The first of the coaches in that 12-man list was Vicente del Bosque, whom Perez had inherited. The first time he was made Madrid manager, he too was an interim coach. By the time he departed, he had won two league titles and two European cups.
That didn't offer immunity, though. Del Bosque was released the night he won the league. As word got around while the team celebrated that night in 2003, there were conversations and confrontations in corridors in a restaurant a couple of kilometres north of the Bernabeu. Fernando Hierro, the captain, was let go that night, too. At one point, the players decided they'd refuse to go to the cathedral and city hall the next day. The threat was reversed so late that two players, still out, believing that they didn't have to go, almost missed it. When the phone rang at Ronaldo's house, a race against time began.
Solari was among the Madrid players that night. He saw it all from the inside; he had long since learnt that football is not just what happens on the pitch, not just the ball, and he saw the flaws from within, the difficulties, the way their world was. More importantly, he understood it, analysed it, elucidated it, and lived with it.
In 2003, Madrid took their Galactico policy to its extreme, bringing in David Beckham and shipping out nine others. There was little depth: The new coach, Carlos Queiroz, joked that he might petition FIFA to let them play in only one half of the pitch and noted that a Ferrari can't run without tires. A director from that era admitted that they had "a starting XI and Solari, nothing else."
Madrid's policy came to be known as Zidanes y Pavones -- a squad made up of superstars like Zinedine Zidane and youth-teamers like Francisco "Paco" Pavon. The problem, Solari said -- and it was as striking that he dared say it at all in the calm, rational way in which he did say it -- was that it tended toward the disappearance of the middle class, as necessary as it was resented and endangered.
Eventually, he was virtually the only one of them left. He too had been edged toward the door, but he had resisted.
The show, and the stars, had to go on; the other players knew that, barring injury, their roles would be reduced. "You cannot underestimate the frustration, but then they [the stars] are generational players," Solari explained in "El Macca," the book brought out in 2004 by his teammate and best mate Steve McManaman. There was an excitement about being at the heart of something unique, but for those players, like him, who didn't fit despite being indispensable, it was not easy. He talked about finding a way to feel useful to the team. The collective, always, as a means to self-satisfaction.
That might be the best description of him: Solari was always useful. Universally admired, too. He understood and empathised, always adjusted. He grasped the mechanisms, the personalities, the pressures. One newspaper called him the trade unionist for that Bernabeu workforce. He wore that gently, though. He was eloquent, and elegant. "You have to have a strong personality," he said. "Del Bosque tried to make everyone feel special, but it is difficult too. The coach's job here is not easy."
In an interview a few years later, he said he admired Del Bosque's management of the group. That, he said, was as important as what happened on the training pitch.
This is Solari's first job at the elite level, but this scenario is not so sudden for him, nor so alien. Those lessons learnt, those experiences, remain valuable, even as the club has evolved and the game, too. He insisted that, despite retirement, he had not stopped being a footballer -- you never do. He never stopped being a fan, either, an enthusiast. Like Zidane, he comes to Madrid's first team via Castilla and, like Zidane, his great idol was Enzo Francescoli, about whom he has written warm, wonderful words: "To do him justice you'd need 800 pages of Tolstoy."
He always wanted to be a coach like his father and his uncle had been before him. He started his badges five years ago. "I know the world of a coach through my father, who I accompanied all the way," he said.
At his presentation as Madrid coach, Solari said the plan was for Madrid to play "with two bollocks." The phrase, a standard line in Spain, as clichéd as it is crass, felt rehearsed. A message aimed at players, or board, or fans, and deliberately sought in a context in which many demand more base qualities: fight, spirit, aggression. It was always likely to be the headline, he knew -- and so it proved -- but what made it stand out was that it felt a little unlike him. "The poet turned legionnaire," one headline read. AS said he had come out as "Torrente," Spanish film's bumbling, unrefined, racist, sexist, foul-mouthed, cartoonish ex-cop played by Santiago Segura.
Charming, immediately likeable, a reader and a writer, an intelligent talker -- a former pundit for ESPN, no less -- and a superb columnist with El Pais, writing with rare enthusiasm and eloquence about the game, and how it is a source of constant discovery, a vehicle for life, an excuse to bring people together. "A pass is like a word," he once said. "It allows the reading to mean something. But it has to have a purpose: Passing for no reason is like talking for the sake of it."
Few have better expressed the relationship between media and players, for example. Fluent in English, there's analysis, eloquence, empathy, a sensitivity, perspective and rationality about Solari that come across in his words. Honesty too, but gently applied, not hammered home. He contradicts, challenges, convinces with charm. What was it Sergio Ramos said the other day? Respect is earned, not imposed. Solari talked about cojones, and used the word "warrior" rather more than even he might have liked, the message aimed at his men, but he talked about happiness and joy too.
There's idealism, but not naiveté. Few were more furious with Claudio Ranieri when he walked away from Atletico Madrid as they headed toward relegation, despite having told the players that, however bad the institution became, they must remain united, professionals together. Solari also knows there's a real world that he must accommodate; these are people not just players, or indeed presidents. Castilla teaches too, but does not dictate: This is a different job, although he will be aware of the pressures from above and below; the real significance of overblown, seemingly endless debate about Vinicius; the balance between a desire for an iron fist and the need for a softer touch; the way that every line will be read between, his every move analysed and over-analysed. Not just from without but from within, too.
He must pick his way through that and he knows he has two weeks. He must play a role, up to a point, albeit without falling into the trap of trying to be something else, even if he can't always be everything he would wish to be. From his various managers, he says he learnt, "You can't pretend: The first things players realise is when you're lying." Idealism, but not naiveté. And a bottom line: the reality of results. Asked not long after he stopped playing if he would be a manager, Santi Solari replied: "Who knows?" But he knew; he had already started. He knew, too, how that role inevitably ends. "I know how unstable the profession is," he said.