Coaching Real Madrid is a reward rather than an opportunity

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 1, 2018

For any coach in professional sport, enduring legacy is always the ultimate goal. Trophies, medals and trinkets provide day-to-day validation but, in the end, they probably all aspire to leave the game knowing that they’ve stretched its fabric.

A penny for the thoughts of Zinedine Zidane, then, who departed Real Madrid on Thursday having won three successive Champions League finals, but who has no obvious place in the game’s history (as a coach). History will record his achievements these last few years, but nobody will ever write a glowing accompaniment to them. Writers will – and already have – spoken admiringly of his ability to tame ego and restore collective spirit, but those are almost incidental qualities in this intellectual age. The thirst is for coaches who challenge the orthodoxy, who take grand tactical risks and present something different to look at, not for those who simply harness the full power of mighty squads.

That’s an interesting issue when considering Zidane’s successor. The World Cup begins soon and Florentino Perez will presumably be keen to re-establish a sense of control at Santiago Bernabeu, so it’s not a vacancy which will last for a long. Mauricio Pochettino is liked, Antonio Conte is almost certainly available, and Perez has an enduring – fateful and baffling – fondness for Jose Mourinho.

But what is the appeal of Real? Beyond the obvious – the money, the status, the access to the top-tier awards – what opportunities does the job really afford coaches who are still defining their reputations? As Zidane is discovering, winning with this team doesn’t come with the recognition that it might elsewhere. The Frenchman is being praised for his timing, his grace and his foresight, but there’s been little applause for the mechanics behind his achievements.

And that is important. Maybe not for Zidane, but certainly for most of the men Perez would probably like to replace him. Mourinho, of course, is a slightly different case, but any of Pochettino, Conte and – theoretically – Jurgen Klopp, would baulk at the notion of being a simple employee within a system. They are idealogues, praised as much for their ideas as they are their results, and have all succeeded most when their teams have been allowed to become extensions of their personality.

That could never be the case in Madrid, as it hasn’t been with any of the coaches employed over the past few decades; think of those teams and you think of the players. In fact, think of this team and you think of the players – in years to come, those who remember the goals Real scored in their European finals are more likely to recall Zidane’s reaction to them than they are to consider his effect in creating them. It’s a club which sears away managerial personality, reducing those men to the most literal parts of their job description. Coach and select: it’s really difficult to forge an identity from that.

The implication is that this is a job quite unlike any other and it’s suited to an entirely different profile of manager. It requires gravitas and acumen, of course, but it’s really more of a posting than a position. Under Perez, the ideal employee is part-statesman, part-politician; someone who has clear, relatable ideas on how football should be played, but who has the humility to recognise that it will always be more about the players on the field (and the executives staring down upon it) than it will him. He is there to facilitate, not necessarily to lead.

It is, therefore, a job suited to someone whose career has already reached its apex. Not necessarily someone already in decline, but a coach who has nothing left to prove to the football world or whose impact upon it has already been chronicled. Nobody in the modern era, with the possible exception of Zidane, has ever been proven a better manager for their time at the Bernabeu, and nobody has obviously suffered for it either.

In effect, managing Real Madrid is really a reward for whatever else is on a CV, not an opportunity to actually add to it.

Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane
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