Zinedine Zidane stepped down this past week (31 May) from his post as manager of Real Madrid following the completion of the club’s third successful run through UEFA’s Champions League competition. Had it been any other man in the midst of an unprecedented run of football excellence, or really anyone but Zidane, there might be cause to wonder about what’s going on inside his head. But this is Zidane and over the years, if nothing else, he and his admirers have learned to trust his head.
Two headers, due scudetti and a double
Soon, just a matter of days now, the latest World Cup finals will begin in Russia. If all goes as scheduled the next World Cup champions will be crowned exactly 20 years and 3 days—as well as 5 World Cup Finals—since Zidane led his France side to something of a surprise victory over Ronaldo and Brazil in the Stade de France at Saint-Denis in 1998. His primary weapon on that day: his head. He used it to score twice from corners as the first half ended.
But that was just the beginning.
The Marseille-born marvel—aided by quite a stellar group of teammates it must be said —would go on to win the European Championship just two summers later, as France completed a rare international double. By the summer of 2002, Zidane had also won two Serie A titles with Juventus and scored the cup winner as he helped his new side, Real Madrid, to its third Champions League title in five years. Injury plagued at the 2002 World Cup finals, Zidane would—reluctantly it seemed—return for his last such competition and even guide his country once again to the final match, just 4 years later. He was, by then, far less of a mystery to opponents and more of a marked man. Part of that due in no small measure to a widely seen documentary of a 2005 match he played for Real which was filmed in full: “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait”. In the course of which film and match he was sent off. Little surprise then that Italy’s defenders took special note of his presence during the 2006 Word Cup Final.
Eventually, Zidane’s head once again made news on that day.
Red-carded out of the final for his (in-)famous headbutt on Marco Materazzi, Zidane departed international play immediately thereafter. He has never been one for drawn out good-byes.
His three Champions League titles now won as manager of Madrid are, like almost everything else about his career in football, the stuff of legend. He has achieved the unthinkable at almost every stage of that storied career. But a good deal of his status as legend is due in no small measure to using his head. To anyone who witnessed the last one of those title matches, it was clear that Zidane had actually managed his club’s way to victory. His motivational manipulations of especially Benzema and Bale produced exactly the result that Real needed to get to the level of a team that could win Europe three times in a row. That is something that might never again be accomplished in the UCL.
But Zidane—as both player and manager—has always seemed very much aware of the difference between the endgame and the end of the game. He is cognizant of the fact that the same formula that created success in one moment could create abject failure the very next. He knows that the same head capable of winning a world championship in 1998 is also liable to giving another away in 2006.
In the coming months it will be revealed whether Zidane’s departure from the Santiago Bernabeu was merely the beginning of a flood of big name departures for Real. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are already rumored to be leaving. Luka Modric seems ready to retire and Sergio Ramos can sport no more tattoos (at least not within the bounds of public decency). The game in Spain may have reached its end. (Potential transferring in of the likes of Neymar Jr. notwithstanding.)
Zidane: Clean shaven
So what next? Zidane has options of course. He could return to France’s Ligue 1, perhaps even to manage Saint-Étienne. It is a storied name in need of rejuvenation to its former glory. If he wanted a long-term, but popular challenge, it could be a good fit.
Yet any future managerial post, regardless of inherent sentiment or glamour would likely feel like an anti-climax and Zidane’s is a character that is never drawn to the mundane. He seems a moth ever in search of a flame.
And that flame could be the burning mess left behind by Michel Platini. Recall that Platini, France’s legendary footballer from a previous generation, rose to the presidency of UEFA in 2007. Since 2015, however, he has been involved and implicated in a continuing string of corruption scandals. Both Platini and former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, are currently serving a FIFA ban from the game until at least 2024.
World football finds itself a bit…ahem…headless at present. In a coincidental way, it is a crisis tailor made for someone of Zidane’s sterling reputation. The reputation of the two leading international organizations, by contrast, is tottering and the world game is on the brink of a state of turmoil. Even in this World Cup year, the run of play seems to have been interrupted. There is a brief pause and the ball is stopped. Finally, the service is played in from the corner.
And Zidane is unmarked…