It’s the 2002 Champions League final. Real Madrid versus Bayer Leverkusen. The match is heading towards half-time with the scores tied at 1-1. Roberto Carlos crosses the ball from the left—a loopy, slow-motion cross that hangs in the air forever. Zinedine Zidane waits, right leg pinned to the ground, left leg in the air, and then, as the ball starts dropping, he swings. The connection is sweet, and the ball flies into the top corner. It’s the winning goal, and it leaves you with just one thought: “How on earth did he do that?!"
Fifteen years later, it’s another Champions League final. Real Madrid versus Juventus. Zidane has moved from the centre to the sidelines, and at the end of 90 minutes, he has established himself as one of the greatest managers in Champions League history.
Zidane took charge of Madrid’s superstars one-and-a-half years ago. Since then, he has become the first manager to win back-to-back Champions League titles (Arrigo Sacchi did it with AC Milan in 1989 and 1990, when it was still known as the European Cup). In less than 18 months, he’s won as many Champions League titles as Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho, and he has led Madrid to their first La Liga title in five seasons.
Which brings us back to the same thought a decade-and-a-half later: “How on earth did he manage to do that?!"
At the risk of stating the obvious, all managers have different strengths. Ferguson was a master motivator. Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola rely on meticulous preparation and flawless execution. At his best (and his worst), Mourinho gets his teams into siege mode—us against the world. At his best (and his worst), Arsène Wenger gives his players freedom to express themselves.
And Zidane? It’s hard to attribute his success to any one factor, considering everything he’s touched has turned to gold so far, but early indications are that he’s carried the intuitive genius of his playing days into the dugout.
As a player, Zidane could make space where none existed with a flick of his boot and a drop of the shoulder. He also seemed to have more time than anyone else on the field. When caught in a spot, he had that Dennis Bergkamp-esque ability of not falling back on the rehearsed, but making up new tricks in split seconds.
That intuition seems to be guiding his managerial journey as well. He might have inherited a team of superstars, but he has also brought some academy kids through to the first team—a significant departure from Madrid’s era of Galácticos.
Marco Asensio, 21, and Lucas Vázquez, 25, have both come through the ranks, while Álvaro Morata was called back from his loan spell at Juventus. They are all thriving.
The fun space to watch, though, is the relationship between him and Cristiano Ronaldo, a clear sign that Zidane could end up as one of the great man-managers in the sport. Ronaldo has not been the easiest of players to handle (as his fall-outs with both Ferguson and Mourinho would indicate).
But in Zidane, the goal-scoring maniac seems to have found someone who understands his motivations, as well as someone whose authority he is happy to accept. Zidane rested Ronaldo, now 32, towards the second half of the season—a decision that saw the striker in top goal-scoring form going into the knock-outs.
After the final whistle on Saturday night, they couldn’t stop singing each other’s praises.
Football is full of examples of great players failing to make the grade as managers. But just like he did as a player, Zidane’s finding an untrodden, unrehearsed path to greatness.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.