The Zizou TouchMay 31, 2016
An aura of inevitability engulfed as Cristiano Ronaldo lined up to take the final penalty after Atletico Madrid’s Juanfran had hit the post with the previous kick in the Champions League final in Milan last Saturday. Ronaldo made his customary Ronaldo-esque legs apart, breathe in and run up routine and duly dispatched his kick, as had every other Real Madrid penalty taker, to Jan Oblak’s left and wheeled away in celebration. La Undecima, the eleventh European crown had been signed, sealed and delivered for the Los Merengues. Ecstacy, delirium, unbridled joy and happiness ensued.
Real Madrid is a club whose reputation and standing in world football has been almost solely defined by the UEFA Champions League/European Cup. This competition means more to the Spanish capital club than it does to any other club, and more than any other competition. To a Madridista, the Champions League is a divine right – their own trophy. That’s why for the entire period between 2002 and 2014, La Decima (tenth) was the obsession, so much that it was borderline insanity. When it arrived in Lisbon two years ago, it was replaced by La Undecima. And now that it is safely in the bag, and as soon as the celebrations fizzle out, the new craving will be the Duodécimo, the twelfth. Because that’s just how Real Madrid is, the premier club in Europe’s premier club competition.
At times like this it is always tempting to quote a famous Bible verse from Ecclesiasticus 44 that I have loved from my high school years. I guess I should spare you the agony on this instance, yes? No! Sue me. Here goes: Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning…let us praise the one that steered La Undecima to safe white waters, Zinedine Zidane.
At some point in that pulsating final against an opponent as engaging as Atleti, you feared that maybe Zizou had shown his rookie hand and that he would fall short. After surprising Diego Simeone and his band of warriors by taking an early (probably fortuitous) lead courtesy of captain Sergio Ramos logic would dictate that Zidane would push his men to kill off the game in recognition of the fact that the Rojiblancos would now have to come out of their shells to force the issue thus leaving spaces in their half to be exploited. Instead Madrid opted for control, and patience.
Well, all that wasn’t bad – control and patience most of the time should steer the result to your direction, but then again, only if you make something out of it. If you don’t, then the opponent slowly claws back their way into the game, especially one as massive as the Champions League final. At some point the Whites were passing the ball around confidently, nonchalantly, casually even, to the echoes of ‘Ole!’ from the throngs of Madridistas after every completed pass. The problem is that they weren’t really probing at Oblak’s goal. You knew it was only a matter of time before Atleti equalized, and they did with just over ten minutes go through the livewire that had tormented Madrid right back Danilo all night, the nifty Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. Oh dear.
But that was always in the cards, right? You know, Atleti getting back in the game. So in that respect probably it would be harsh to blame it all on Zidane, even if, and let’s face it, Real should have scored two by the time Atleti got their lifeline. Earlier on Real Madrid lost Dani Carvajal to injury and was forced to use up one of the three substitutions on Danilo. Maybe Zidane got carried away, because by the 75th minute he had already exhausted all his bench options by bringing on Isco for Toni Kroos (the horror!) and the budding talent that’s Lucas Vazquez for Karim Benzema. On paper, the Lucas for Benzema change made sense, injecting pace and trickery on the right flank in favour of the exhausted Frenchman. But taking off Kroos, he of the famous Kroos Kontrol tag and ceding control when his approach had been based on control more than anything else was a bit puzzling. And of course, barely five minutes after the last substitution Atletico Madrid got their goal. At that instance, it was difficult to not think about the nature and timing of Zidane’s changes as a monumental ‘fuck up’ as Pep Guardiola would probably put it.
Sometimes you pay for mistakes, other times they pay you. Somehow Atleti could not convert their newfound momentum into further goals even in Extra Time. And so for the eleventh time in history, the lottery of the penalty shoot-out would decide the destiny of the Champions League trophy. It is alleged that Ronaldo had a vision that he would score the winning goal and so before the spot kicks commenced, he implored Zidane to let him take the fifth (and presumably final) kick. You may or may not buy this story, and it’s perfectly fine, but indeed Ronaldo took Madrid’s fifth penalty and converted what turned out to actually be the winning goal. What may go unacknowledged is the fact it takes a lot of confidence in your other takers to let your first choice penalty taker have the fifth one. Sometimes your last taker doesn’t even get the chance to embark on the long lonely walk to the spot. Ask Fernando Torres. Or even the same Cristiano at the semi final of the Euros four years ago with Portugal. But Zizou believed, and it paid off.
Still on the dramatic (aren’t they all?) shoot out, the first player to step up was Lucas Vazquez, the young lad who has only just recently made his break though into the Real first team. Many a Madrid faithful would be forgiven for burying their faces in their palms at the sight of the baby-faced number 18 placing the ball on the penalty spot, being the focus of the whole of San Siro and indeed the whole world. Credit to him for being the epitome of composure and calmly slotting the ball into the far left. And what about Zizou? How much gut did he have to not only pick Vazquez for the penalty, but also for making him the first taker? Imagine the stick that would come with that call should Lucas have failed to convert and Madrid losing the final? Curiously too, all the Madrid takers, Lucas, Marcelo, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo all went for Oblak’s left hand corner and coincidentally, he either never dived for the ball or never looked the part in his flailing. Did I say, ‘coincidentally’? Scratch that. That was planned. Zidane and his staff did their homework and thoroughly studied Oblak and that’s why the Undecima happened.
Zidane may have only been at the helm for 5-6 months, and really we shouldn’t make much of his tenure so far. But it doesn’t make the job any easier – the Madrid job is the most difficult in football management in the world, irrespective of when one takes it. Heck! Zizou may not be the most tactically acclaimed coach a la the Guardiolas and Jose Mourinhos of this world, but he got stuck in and did the job in his own way. And what way is that? Simple. Realizing he has got a bunch of talented individuals and just rallying them to pull together and let their brilliance come to the fore. Of course, reader discretion: it’s not as simple as that.
To many, the jury is still out on a man who up until December last year was coaching the Real Madrid Castilla (youth team) in the Spanish Third Division, but you know what, he has become the first Frenchman to have won the Champions League. He has brought the holy grail to a team that at the time of his appointment was rudderless and just looking for someone to steady the ship and lead it to a decent docking. Zidane has been a protagonist in each of the last three of Madrid’s European triumphs; as the match-winner (2002), assistant coach (2014) and head coach (2016). He has always been a Bernabeu legend, but with this triumph, he is assured of the eternal adulation of the millions of Madridistas regardless of how next season turns out.
The early dominance of Real Madrid in the European Cup will always be synonymous with Alfredo Di Stefano and rightly so. But the Madrid European story of the 21st century is well and truly punctuated, details dotted and crossed by the one and only Zinedine Zidane.