Zinedine Zidane Leaves Florentino Pérez’s Real Madrid on His Own Terms

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The only thing missing, the sole disappointment, was that Zinedine Zidane did not conclude his final news conference as manager of Real Madrid by lifting the microphone from the desk in front of him and dropping it to the floor. His natural reticence denied him the emphatic finale he deserved.

In January 2016, when Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s bombastic president, presented Zidane to the world as Rafael Benítez’s replacement, few believed the decision would prove wise.

Pérez himself had doubts: A few months earlier, he had hoped Zidane — then coach of Castilla, the club’s B team — would accept an offer to take charge of Marseille, his hometown team. He was, at that point, something of an enigma: Nobody really knew how he would fare in management; initial impressions, from his time at Castilla, were not uniformly positive.

Better, Pérez thought, for him to cut his teeth away from the white heat of the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, given the risk the president would be taking in appointing him. Among his primary concerns was that Zidane might prove difficult to fire, when the time came, because of his status among the club’s fans.

He need not have worried. On Thursday, Zidane announced that he would be stepping down from the post he has occupied for the last two and a half years. He did so having won one Spanish title, one Spanish Super Cup, two UEFA Super Cups, two FIFA World Club Cups and — most important of all — three consecutive Champions League titles, the most recent against Liverpool five days ago.

Until Zidane came along, nobody had retained the Champions League, let alone won it three years in a row. Until Zidane came along, only two other managers had won three European Cups — both Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley required rather more than 29 months. Zidane has won the Champions League three times in less than three years. He has won a trophy at the rate of one every 17 games. It has been, in no uncertain terms, a mic drop of a career.

He made clear on Thursday that he would not step into another role immediately — he would not coach another club next season, he said — but that should be no great surprise. Zidane has always made clear that he wanted to coach Real Madrid, “my club, a club that will always be in my heart,” and the French national team, and nobody else. Depending on how Didier Deschamps fares in the World Cup, it does not take a clairvoyant to work out what his next job might be.

For Real Madrid, the future is substantially less clear. The club’s 13th European Cup is starting to feel as much as a curse as a blessing. On the field in Kiev, Ukraine, immediately after the final whistle against Liverpool, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo cast doubts on their futures in Madrid — one rather more convincingly than the other — and now the club’s manager has departed.

This was always likely to be a summer of change in Madrid: Pérez has not strengthened his all-conquering first team since 2014, when Toni Kroos arrived. Though Real Madrid’s finances are not quite as strong as they appeared before Neymar warped the transfer market last summer, the plan was always to spend substantially this year. Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich striker, is one target.

A manager, though, was not on the agenda. Pérez sat stony-faced through Zidane’s announcement. The decision had caught him by surprise, he admitted. He visited the Frenchman at home on Wednesday to try to dissuade him, and failed. Pérez might have had doubts initially, and with every bad result, but he recognized now that he had happened upon the perfect manager.

uti and Santiago Solari, both youth coaches at the club, have a romantic appeal, as former players, but neither has the authority Zidane, once the finest player on the planet, exudes. Neither Joachim Löw, the Germany manager, nor Arsène Wenger, until recently of Arsenal, would likely enjoy the inherently unstable environment Pérez has created.

Zidane — because of who he is, and what he was — fit the bill perfectly. He did not claim to stand for some great philosophical school, or interfere in the transfer market, or tell players to do anything he could not do himself, because he could do pretty much anything. He was the perfect Real Madrid manager, and now he is gone. Finding someone to pick up the microphone will not be easy.

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