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Zinedine Zidane has always done things his own way. As a player, he rarely flashed his transcendent skill when he didn’t have to, settling for a spare playing style that somehow made the Algerian-Frenchman from the slums of Marseille seem even more regal. He was unpredictable both on the field and off. He retired immediately after leading France to its second World Cup final in 2006. He was still very much on top, still the best playmaker of his generation.
He left, of course, having headbutted Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the chest in that final and gotten himself sent off in the last game of his career. It was his 14th red card as a professional, a deep-seated anger and a perpetual frustration at being kicked endlessly by lesser men forever competing with his genius for dictating games with his demure puppeteering of his peers.
On Thursday, Zidane announced that he was leaving Real Madrid for a second time. After five triumphant years there as a player — the most expensive of all time for a while, after Real poached him from Juventus — he is leaving after just two and a half seasons as manager.
He’s leaving, in fact, after Zidane won three Champions League titles in less than three years. And just five days after collecting that last title. Staggeringly, that ties him with Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti as the only manages to win either the European Cup or its succeeding Champions League three times. And he’s the only one to have won them consecutively. He also won La Liga once and the Club World Cup twice, in spite of this being his first head coaching job.
But now he departs. Abruptly and unexpectedly, apparently catching even all-powerful club president Florentino Perez by surprise.
“Madrid has given everything to me and I will be close to this club for the rest of my life,” Zidane said at a press conference. “But 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.”
It might well be that Zidane grew tired of the club’s perpetually devious politics. Mere minutes had passed after Saturday’s big final before Cristiano Ronaldo explicitly and very pointedly spoke of his time at Real in the past tense. Like every summer, he is threatening to leave. What has set him off this time is hard to say. But this is a Real manager’s daily fare, navigating a dozen or so competing interests tugging at him.
Then there’s the unceasing pressure. At Real, a season in which the Champions League isn’t won is a failure. That’s probably why the club has 13 such titles, almost twice as many as any other club. But coaches burn out in that pressure cooker, made worse by an unsparing daily sports press. Pep Guardiola only lasted four seasons in a similar environment at FC Barcelona. Luis Enrique stuck around for just three. There is no Real equivalent because rare is the manager who leaves Real on his own terms after a successful spell. Even Jose Mourinho was quite clearly pushed out.
But Zidane leaves of his own volition. Because he does things his way.
It was perhaps a prudent time to leave anyway. While it hasn’t stopped them from dominating Europe, the squad’s core is obviously aging. Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Marcelo and Sergio Ramos are all on the wrong side of 30. There are lots of younger players poised to step in, but some transition time would be required. And if the third-place finish in La Liga — a whopping 17 points behind Barca — demonstrates anything, it’s that this team, in its current incarnation, was no longer capable of competing on two fronts.
Yet for all his success, and the apparent wisdom of his timely exit, the jury is still very much out on Zidane as an actual coach. There’s still no telling just how astute Zidane really is from a tactical standpoint. He largely kept his tactics simple. Zidane will not be remembered for soaring attacks or sweeping innovations in the way the sport is played. That’s sort of what’s expected of big-time managers now. But Zidane never pandered to that mystique.
If nothing else, he got all the superstars in his locker room to coexist as functionally as possible. He had their respect from his own playing resume, and he managed to retain it through all those pressure-filled nights. It’s telling that his now-former players lament his departure on social media.
Zidane’s most evident skill lay in massaging egos while managing minutes. And in keeping aging veterans satisfied while retaining the commitment of hungry and talented younger players biding their time behind them.
In that sense, he always remained the quiet playmaker, enabling those around him with an understated finesse.
It’s tough to say how he’ll fare elsewhere, without an abundance of talent. It begs that age-old question of whether a manager gets good result because he has great players. We may never find out. Zidane gave no indication that he’ll ever take another job.
After all these years in the spotlight, Zidane somehow remains mysterious. There’s still no telling what he’ll do.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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