Zinedine Zidane. Mention the name and a whole host of things come to mind. His starting role in the 1998 World Cup final as France beat Brazil 3-0, with Zizou bagging two goals; that incredible volleyed winner against Bayer Leverkusen to clinch the Champions League trophy for Real Madrid in 2002; even that headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, a game France went on to lose on penalties, with Italy lifting the trophy.
With Zidane retiring with immediate effect following the final, that infamous flashpoint was undeniably a disappointing end to the playing career of one of the greatest players to ever grace the game.
On joining Real Madrid from Juventus for around €77.5million in 2001, the talismanic Frenchman became the world’s most expensive player, a record that was not broken for a further eight years, when Madrid signed Kaka and then Cristiano Ronaldo from Milan and Manchester United respectively.
He is still widely regarded as the greatest player of his generation, but is now attempting to become one of the few to make the successful transition into management.
Many of the greatest managers to influence the game are not necessarily known for their prowess on the pitch, but rather their dominance on the sidelines. Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are managers that will leave a lasting legacy as tacticians, but maybe not as players. Even Zidane’s Champions League final foe Massimiliano Allegri had a modest playing career, but at Juventus looks sure to clinch a third straight league title whilst preparing for a second European final in three years.
In contrast, some of the best players to play the game have struggled to make the move into management. Diego Maradona, undoubtedly one of the best to grace the pitch in history, has had an underwhelming career as a boss—his time in charge of his native Argentina ended with a humiliating 4-0 drubbing from Germany at the quarterfinal stage. Alan Shearer—the all-time leading goal-scorer in the Premier League—was unable to rejuvenate his beloved Newcastle United in 2009 and oversaw their relegation to the Championship, and most recently Gary Neville, a warrior of a right back in his prime and a superb television pundit, was left exposed at Spanish side Valencia before returning to his TV role.
If anything, those examples prove that great players seldom make great managers. But is Zidane an exception?
Some would argue that with the squad at his disposal—including the likes of Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Ronaldo—he should be winning trophies. But the biggest task at the Bernabeu has always been keeping the fans happy and the squad settled. Many accomplished managers have failed to achieve that balance.
Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho are the last two managers to win the league at Madrid, yet both fell foul out of favour with the board and supporters thanks to their defensive styles. Rafael Benitez, who has won major European trophies with both Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as guiding Valencia to the league title in 2004, was sacked in January last year—halfway through his first season in charge—amidst allegations that he was unpopular with supporters and players alike. Madrid were third in La Liga and had won their Champions League group with five wins and a draw from six games.
Zidane took over from Benitez, having been assistant manager to Carlo Ancelotti in the 2013-14 Champions League winning season.
Half a season later he had led Madrid to an incredible 11th European Cup crown, becoming only the seventh person to do so as a player and manager. However, he is now on the brink of something truly special and historic.
No club has retained the Champions League trophy since its change in format. Zidane has the chance to change that after less than 18 months in charge. Having led the side to a 4-2 aggregate win in the semifinals against city rivals Atletico, he will take charge in the showpiece final at Cardiff against his former side Juve. He is also on course to win the title at the expense of bitter enemies Barcelona, which would be Madrid’s first title in seven years.
He still has his doubters and his critics, but should he succeed in the target of the double in the coming weeks, there will be little anyone can say to undermine the achievement.
Zidane could be one of the rare breed of great players turned great managers, and if he continues on the path he has been on since joining Madrid, he will surely establish himself as a true legend in both aspects of the beautiful game.