Zinedine Zidane knew as soon as the name flashed up on his phone. Late last week, after Real Madrid crashed out of the Champions League to Ajax and saw painful defeats to Barcelona end its hopes in both La Liga and the Copa del Rey, Florentino Pérez, the club’s president, called the man he regards as “the best coach in the world.” He asked him to come back.
“And here I am,” Zidane said.
Just 284 days after he left Madrid — after three Champions League titles in three years — after claiming that both he and the club needed a “change,” Zidane walked back into the media suite at the Santiago Bernabéu flanked by his wife, Veronique, Pérez, and a phalanx of Real legends.
After just two phone conversations with Pérez, Zidane agreed to take charge of Real until the summer of 2022. His love for the club he had graced as both a player and a coach, he said, was too great for him to resist. “I could not say no,” he said. “I am here because the president called me.”
If Pérez had known it was that simple, he might have moved to get in touch sooner. Zidane lives in Madrid; he has witnessed, firsthand, the “difficult” season his team has endured, first under Julen Lopetegui — poached from the Spanish national team on the eve of the World Cup in June, fired before Halloween — and then his replacement, the former youth team coach Santiago Solari. “I was watching my players, and I was not happy about how things were” he said.
Madrid sits third in La Liga, behind not only Barcelona but also its city rival, Atlético; it is out of the Copa del Rey; and, most damaging of all, it was eliminated by Ajax in the last 16 of the Champions League last week, losing the second leg of the tie by 4-1 at home. “We are going through a difficult and complicated moment,” Pérez said. “We know what pain that brings the fans.”
Little wonder, then, that Zidane — just as he did when he left Madrid, five days after lifting the third of those Champions Leagues — took to the rostrum once again speaking of the need for change. “This club is what had to and has to change,” he said. “Things have to change, in every way. We have to change for next season.”
The nature of the change, though, is likely to be very different: Real must transform from a position of relative weakness, rather than strength. That is likely to mean a considerable overhaul of the playing staff: Pérez had long since accepted the need for an injection of funds into the team this coming summer, with the likes of Eden Hazard, the Chelsea forward, under consideration to join a third incarnation of the so-called Galactico project. Several high-profile members of the current squad, including Isco and Gareth Bale, may well have to be sacrificed to balance the books.
The principal difference, then, is Zidane’s energy for the challenge. “I left the club because I needed it, for me, though at the time the club did not,” he said. “Since I love the president, and the club, I am here. After eight months, I want to coach again.”
He has spent the last nine months, he said, “recharging my batteries, doing my things.” His list of honors, the unbroken European success he enjoyed in his first and only managerial role, ensured that he had not been short of suitors — he said he had received offers from several other teams — but none offered the emotional allure of Real.
“Now I am ready to have the experience of coaching Madrid again,” he said. “They have given me the chance to be in this club once more, this club that I love very much.”