MADRID, Spain, Mar 12 – Zinedine Zidane stood for 29 minutes fielding questions but all of them really came down to two: Why now? And, what next?
In a packed auditorium in the belly of the Santiago Bernabeu on Monday night, Raul and Roberto Carlos took their seats in the front row while journalists squeezed up against the walls, an hour and a half after the official announcement.
Santiago Solari had been sacked as coach of Real Madrid and in his place Zidane would return, 284 days after he had left.
On May 31 last year, sitting next to the club’s president Florentino Perez, Zidane had said the team would not keep winning with him in charge.
They failed to win without him, first under Julen Lopetegui, the sacked Spain coach, and then Solari, the interim-turned-permanent coach, who watched on as Madrid’s season went up in smoke in six days.
Solari’s exit was inevitable but the idea any suitable replacement would take over for 11 La Liga games, with nothing to preside over except the aftermath of a crisis, seemed fanciful.
“When the president called me the first thing I thought was: go,” said Zidane. Which begs the question: what has changed?
Rest may have refreshed motivation, particularly for Zidane, who said himself, “I have never been far away”.
He has stayed in Madrid and attended a handful of matches, while three of his sons still play for the club at various levels.
For him, the move back might have been less of a leap than it seems from the outside.
Yet the greatest lure may be that the team has been failing. For the best coaches, and players, there is always self-belief, a sense that no problem is too big to solve.
Zidane knew he would return with more authority than ever, far more even than after he had hoisted a third consecutive Champions League trophy.
The suspicion then was that he was just a face, a popular manager to keep the ship steady while star players engineered their own success.
As two coaches came and went, Zidane’s stock rose with every chance missed, every seat left empty and every point that Barcelona moved further away.
“I returned because the president called me. I love him and I love this club,” he said. “We will change things, for sure, for the years to come.”
Zidane could have waited until the summer but the job might not have been available. Jose Mourinho, speaking on his increasingly regular public appearances, seemed eager.
Perez was under fire from all directions, from the fans, many of whom blamed the board more than Solari in the newspaper polls, and from the players, led by Sergio Ramos.
“The problem is bad planning,” Ramos reportedly shot back during a heated argument with Perez following last week’s defeat to Ajax.
– ‘New golden era’-
A new coach could ease the pressure and one like Zidane, remove it almost completely.
“We need to start working on a new glorious era,” said Perez. “That is why we welcome back Zinedine Zidane.”
Zidane has three months to decide what needs changing. He arrives under no illusions. Madrid triumphed in Europe but in La Liga last season, Barcelona finished 17 points ahead. Now the gap is 12.
“I don’t forget what we won but I also don’t forget the bad things we did all together last year,” he said.
The temptation might be to discard a lot and spend even more, but the challenge for Zidane is to find the balance between reform and revolution. A fresh start could bring ousted players in from the cold while progress made by talented youngsters like Vinicius Junior, Sergio Reguilon and Marcos Llorente could quickly be lost.
Ronaldo has gone and, while it was unavoidable the team would miss him, others have struggled to fill the void.
Gareth Bale and Zidane were barely speaking during the second half of last season and Bale is understood to be less than enthused by the Frenchman’s return. A clean slate is possible but a parting appears more likely.
Decisions will need to be made too on Marcelo and Isco, who have both endured torrid seasons, while Keylor Navas was once a favourite of Zidane’s, which could spell trouble for Thibaut Courtois. Luka Modric, heavily linked with a move to Italy last summer, may feel it is time for something new.
Zidane’s biggest gain is Vinicius, who may not take play again this season as he recovers from an ankle injury, but whose emergence has been Madrid’s one shining light.
The 18-year-old has flourished though on the left of a front three, which puts any move for Chelsea’s Eden Hazard in a sticky spot. Neymar or Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain will again be touted.
“I would like them both,” Perez said playfully on Monday.
For now though, Real face Celta Vigo on Saturday, with a squad reunited and spirits lifted. It is like Zidane has never been away.
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