The 2016 Champions League final had been built up as a story of redemption, as Atletico Madrid attempted to reverse the outcome of a painful 2014 Champions League final defeat to rival Real Madrid. Though Atletico fell short and mighty Real eventually won in a penalty shootout, the result still served as a tale of redemption for Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane.
While Cristiano Ronaldo celebrated with his shirt off and paraded about like his winning spot kick had been the sole reason Real Madrid won the final, Zidane coolly collected his first trophy as a manager in his first season on the sidelines.
Zidane did not even manage Madrid for a full season. He took the reins in early January of 2016, after Rafa Benitez had promptly received his walking papers to make way for the Frenchman following a 2-2 draw at Valencia. Zidane had been coaching the club's youth team, so the former Real Madrid midfielder’s promotion paralleled Pep Guardiola’s rise at rival FC Barcelona a few years earlier. Though the fans warmly welcomed their new manager, the press harshly pointed to his lack of managerial experience.
In his first eight matches in charge, Zidane managed six wins and two draws, but he had not been wholly tested against any of Europe or Spain’s elite clubs.
In his ninth match, Zidane suffered a home defeat against Atletico Madrid that made him question his own future at the club in the aftermath. In that moment, one could not avoid seeing and hearing that losing meant more to Zidane, or maybe it was that losing clearly hurt Zidane.
Real Madrid would rebound and win the next five games before meeting Barcelona at Camp Nou in El Clasico. Benitez, one can easily argue, lost his job back when Barcelona went to the Santiago Bernabeu and thrashed Real Madrid 4-0 in late November. For Zidane, beating Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou cemented his place with the team and counted as the first medal on his barren managerial jacket.
Of course, a 2-0 defeat to Wolfsburg in the Champions League only four days after the famous victory in Barcelona put pressure on the 1998 World Cup winner. Thanks largely to Ronaldo, Real Madrid would avenge that loss with a 3-0 home victory over the Germans to secure a spot in the semifinals of Europe’s elite club competition.
After 20 La Liga matches in charge, Zidane has the best record of any Real Madrid manager with 17 wins, two draws and only one defeat. Real Madrid finished La Liga with 12 straight victories. From when he took over in January until Real Madrid arrived at the San Siro for the Champions League final on Saturday, Zidane had only suffered two losses in 26 matches across all competitions: at Wolfsburg and against Atletico Madrid. He had overcome Wolfsburg, but beating Atletico Madrid in the final of the Champions League would avenge the 43-year-old manager’s worst defeat.
As a player, Zidane never suffered a defeat to Atletico Madrid in eight matches. As a manager, the Champions League final offered a rare opportunity to tie up one final loose end and categorize his first season as a complete success.
On Saturday, Zidane found redemption, and he did it his way.
The Frenchman picked 24-year-old Brazilian midfielder Casemiro, who made the strongest case as Real Madrid’s man of the match in the final. He gave Gareth Bale the freedom and confidence to get central and take over the attacking responsibility from Ronaldo. Bale’s header led to Sergio Ramos’ opening goal, as the Welshman offered more of an attacking impetus than the Portuguese forward.
Zidane came under criticism for wasting his substitutions and not taking off Ronaldo, who had been altogether anonymous over the 120 minutes of play. But when the time came to score the winning penalty kick in the shootout, Ronaldo stepped up and converted. Though he may have been overly dramatic by taking off his shirt, Ronaldo did provide the match-winning kick. And Zidane left him in.
In beating Atletico Madrid, one of the greatest football players of all time laid the foundation to potentially become one of the greatest managers of all time. Zidane is only the seventh person to win the highly coveted trophy as both a player and a manager. Winning the Champions League in less than half a season on the job is no ordinary feat.
After his promotion in January, critics shouted that Zidane was not qualified and continued to point out every tactical error from that point forward. But football is a game of results. Winning the Champions League is a result that will never leave Zidane’s managerial résumé.
One cannot help but feel that winning the Champions League felt more like redemption than revenge for Zidane. The Frenchman faced constant criticism from the moment he was appointed to Saturday's final, where his players were cramping up and Ronaldo stepped up and buried the final spot kick in the penalty shootout.
In the end, Zidane proved that he was the right man for Real Madrid all along, and now, he has the silverware to silence his critics.