What Zidane's glorious Real Madrid exit means for Bale and Ronaldo
At last for Zinedine Zidane, a truly "great" goodbye to crown his otherwise all-time great career. This was how to leave the stage. It was utterly magnifique in every aspect, not just for Zizou's personal interest.
It was an anomaly that this august Frenchman, who could boast such substance, elegance and outright brilliance across his playing years, saw his resume littered with sometimes underwhelming, often acrimonious and even ultra-controversial "au revoirs." Thursday's exit-stage-left shocked most observers but was a product of utterly brilliant judgement and timing, the "I'll get out ahead of the curve" move that only the truly exceptional (whether in sport, entertainment or politics) have the foresight, wisdom and nerve to produce.
The allure of the big time, the vast financial rewards, the addictive nature of fame, success and privilege: these are the siren songs that sing to those who waver and miss great opportunities. "Stay, stay ... you'll never stop winning and the people will never stop wanting you or loving you."
Zidane has been consciously deaf to their false tunes.
He has seen that winning in Kiev is the apogee of his time coaching Madrid. He has understood that the little scudding clouds last autumn and early winter, when his Madrid team were walking while opponents were sprinting, weren't simply passing squalls but an accurate forecast of what will surely lie ahead next season.
Success sates. Constant pressure and playing without proper rest and squad rotation debilitates.
Also, constant praise weakens. Zidane knew that this squad has reached, and perhaps even gone beyond, its saturation point. And the greatness lies not just in walking away, but doing so at a time and in a manner that allows this vital message to be taken seriously across the club he loves.
Perhaps, in his magisterial timing, he drew decision-making guidance from his own back catalogue.
Zidane left Cannes, his first professional club, after a defeat in his final game to the club he supported as a kid, Marseille, where he was subbed off at half-time, and the team was effectively relegated albeit with one league match left.
Leaving Bordeaux, where his performances began to hint at greatness, didn't come tied up with ribbons and a bow either. He and his teammates lost 5-1 in the UEFA Cup final to Bayern, a sad, humiliating "adieu."
The Juventus "arrividerci" was brimful of bitterness. The Turin club didn't want to sell, the Bianconeri fans regarded him as a traitor, Madrid were portrayed as aristocratic bullies and not only was Zizou sent off in each of his last two Champions League appearances for Juve, but his team were knocked out of the Coppa Italia at home to Roberto Baggio's Brescia and lost the title by two points to Roma.
Madrid? He stopped a year ahead of his contract, by his own admission exhausted, and the 3-3 draw with Villarreal in his last match at the Bernabeu was a big anticlimax despite Zizou scoring. By the end of the night, many thousands had left the stadium and a good few of Juan Ramon Lopez Caro's players (remember him?) were trooping off disconsolately until stalwarts like David Beckham and Iker Casillas reprimanded them and hauled them back to the centre circle to join in a "thanks and goodbye" to their legendary French colleague. A flat souffle of an evening.
If you need reminding of his final game for France, that head-butt and which team won the World Cup final, then you're new to this type of column.
By contrast, not only was Thursday's surprise announcement at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training ground brilliantly timed from his point of view, leaving as he does with not only three straight Champions League victories (which is to say that Zidane has never not won the Champions League while a senior manager), but a total of nine trophies in two and a half seasons.
The true greatness, however, isn't personal. It lies in what he's seen coming, what conclusions he's drawn and the ultra-clear messages he has left for club, players, president and fans alike.
These words he uttered while explaining his departure are the the key part of that point.
"All of this is much more straightforward than it might appear to some. There are times in your life when you have to know when to stop. I'm doing it for the good of the team. For the club. If I had stayed, I think it would have been difficult to carry on winning next season.
"We've seen a hint of that in some of our complicated moments this season. In this club, particularly, you have to know when the moment is right. I don't want to finish on a bad note."
This is what he means: he knows very well that his greatest gift since taking over from a beleaguered Rafa Benitez has been not his coaching or his strategising, per se. Rather, it's been his power and magnetism as a man-manager. His power to instil belief, convince, energise and gain trust. Believe me: these are qualities of gold-dust preciousness in any team sport, but their value soars up the more elite and rarefied level of competition in which you work.
Elite players know how to play. They understand tactics, take care of themselves, live professionally and are rich beyond belief. What they need is motivation, direction, conviction. Belief. Such rare qualities in life.
Madrid have talent galore, and they still did under Benitez in the middle of the 2015-16 season, when Barcelona thumped them 4-0 at the Bernabeu, when Villarreal added another defeat (at the Madrigal) and Valencia hauled them back despite Los Blancos twice leading in Rafa's last game. But what happened is that Zidane instantly "got through" to each and every last one of his squad from the superstars, ordinary stars and foot soldiers down to the trainees.
If the trademark of the Zizou era as Madrid's manager has been greater European glory than at any time in the club's history, a claim I think is factual if not arithmetically correct, the leitmotif is him managing to teach his players in training that team selection would be a meritocracy. He showed them that those who played would do so solely on merit and not because of their fee, their salary or their relationship with the president.
I know, I know: it sounds obvious. But it broke the mould. Training was tighter, more fun, more collegiate. Team spirit was unquenchable. Points and trophies were won in extremis: Zidane's Madrid, mostly, weren't beaten until the janitor had turned out the lights in the stadium and the referee was already on a plane home.
But that phrase about "difficult to win if next season if I'd stayed on..." told the entire story.
Let me explain. Zidane was adored by Pep Guardiola the player. In Pep's only "autobiography" so far, the 2001 book "My Life," there was a chapter devoted to him. Even then.
When Zidane was preparing himself for a possible senior coaching role, he called Guardiola and flew down to Munich to watch the Catalan's training sessions. Not just to take notes but to discuss. The two are kindred spirits and mutually respectful. One of Guardiola's great pieces of learning, something Alex Ferguson knew and relied upon when he ripped up each of his great eras in order to add bite and freshness to his team, is that no matter how powerful the relationship with your squad, there is a "sell-by date."
Players at Barcelona, he subsequently realised, dropped their attention and intensity when he fed them the same "we are on a mission" team talks that had, months before, utterly transfixed them. He stayed a year too long, until 2011-12, and everyone from staff to coach to media ended up realising it. Hence his three years and no more at Bayern. Let's see when Pep judges his message to be falling on deaf ears at City. Indeed, let's see whether he chooses the Ferguson method of staying but drastically revolving the playing staff.
Zidane has watched and learned. None of his players opted, deliberately, for mini-holidays last winter, none of them "stopped caring." But all of them wondered what the hell was wrong when they started losing last-minute goals to Betis, Villarreal or Levante? It was subconscious.
They were running on empty. Nothing more, nothing less. No longer full of physical energy, a little sated by trophy after trophy and no longer buzzed to "infinity and beyond" by their Buzz Lightyear leader. Not tired of him; just an infinitesimal drop in inspiration.
Now Madrid face some difficulties of their own making. Appointing Benitez, a coach of immense ability, was a "square peg, round hole" decision. Appointing Zidane, who wasn't the first choice and was given the job because of availability rather than inspiration, has turned out utterly brilliantly. But without a director of football to plan, guide, finesse and prepare an emergency plan, as well as sculpt a "bible of beliefs," Madrid now must rely on what Florentino Perez has always sworn by: simply buy the best.
But is the best available? Joachim Low thinks he'll be busy until mid-July in Moscow, and anyway, he just renewed his contract with the German national team. Pep Guardiola, for several reasons, won't be on Perez's list. Ancelotti? Been there, done that, just signed for Napoli.
Mauricio Pochettino, already ultra-hard to get, just renewed with Spurs and is potentially smart enough to think that getting the Madrid job in a couple of years might be less of a poisoned chalice than right now.
Arsene Wenger? Turned Madrid down on more than one occasion after face-to-face talks and is certainly no longer in his prime. Also, he was famously averse to confrontation at Arsenal, and that, in the context of Real Madrid, is like comparing the behaviour you might find in an English library with the kind of machinations and personalities you'd enjoy in an episode of the "West Wing."
The list goes on -- Antonio Conte, Raul, Xabi Alonso, Maxi Allegri... Jose Mourinho -- and in fact, I'd be a tad surprised if Perez doesn't turn to his go-to man.
Mourinho's record at Madrid was OK(ish) but had a central jewel: a wonderfully won league title. For anyone who's been evaluating the balance of power in Spanish football, wondering whether there's a chance that Atletico (again) or even Valencia might edge their way closer to a title challenge, I guess that Zidane's phrase that the best memory he'll take from his time in charge was winning the league will be interesting.
It's clearly not how Perez, or indeed the large majority of the squad, feel. As he delivered his verdict about his "best moment," he kind of laughed as if it were obvious, as if it was "by a distance."
I think that phrase hints at the debate ahead for this club. Do they want to win La Liga and Champions League? What kind of squad is needed for that? Why is it that Zidane's league win and Mourinho's are two of only four such titles in the past 15 years? Why also is it that the last Real Madrid manager to retain the La Liga title was Leo Beenhakker three decades ago?
How Zidane's departure leaves the micro-issues, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale's respective futures, is not wholly a lottery. In fact, given that what Ronaldo wants is a salary hike, and at least parity with Neymar and Messi, Zidane's departure merely helps CR7.
What do they say about investors in a crisis? They put their money in gold. If Perez regards this as a mini-crisis, then surely he'll offer Ronaldo the right financial return for staying.
Bale? Also a positive, I think. Yes, it's true, perhaps, that some sort of deal where Spurs allow Pochettino to move to the Bernabeu if they can have Bale back at a cut-price may emerge. But Bale has merited more game time and it's thoroughly feasible that the new coach may wish for stability, for fewer transfer market headaches and may very well decide: Keep Bale happy, promise him much greater protagonism.
What can't be accounted for simply in the short term is the loss to Madrid, La Liga and all of us who dote on Spanish football. Zidane has been so much fun, so classy, so interesting and so magnetic while either football director, assistant coach or boss at the Bernabeu. All of it capped now by a brilliant "adios!"
Only I must say, I'd bet anything in the world that it's not "goodbye" for terribly long. More like a "hasta luego" -- see you again soon. At least I hope so.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.