Richard Witschge is emphatic. Did the former Netherlands winger see any signs that Zinedine Zidane would go on to become a successful coach during the three years they spent playing together at Bordeaux?
“No,” Witschge confesses. “I didn’t think so. Because he was very… Not shy, but he didn’t want the attention. I played for three years with him at Bordeaux, and he went on to be one of the best in the world. But I didn’t know that he was going to become a coach.”
Witschge’s remarks reflect a common refrain among Zidane’s former team-mates. It can be little surprise that many of them did not see the Frenchman’s transformation coming when the man himself has admitted that after hanging up his boots in 2006, moving to the dugout could not have been further from his mind.
I watched Zinedine Zidane when he had hair.
It was already clear back then that he'd become the best player in the country—if not the world. It feels surreal that a small club like ours used to gatecrash European competition with him."
—Cannes fan Emmanuel Fargart recalls teenage Zinedine Zidane leading the unfashionable club to Ligue 1 fourth place, its highest ever finish
Yet move to the dugout he did: Dipping one toe at a time in Real Madrid waters as sporting director, assistant coach, then manager of the club’s reserve team; Zidane took the full plunge in January 2016 after Rafael Benitez was sacked as head coach.
Even his most ardent admirers could not have predicted the success that would follow, as Zidane led Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions League triumphs—an unprecedented feat for a coach, as well as a pair of FIFA Club World Cup crowns and, in 2016/17, the club’s first La Liga success in five years.
When he returned to the Bernabeu for his second stint as head coach in March 2019, it was as one of the most decorated coaches in the game.
Zidane’s own initial reluctance to become a coach, allied to a commonly held perception that he was not manager material, makes the success he has enjoyed all the more surprising. But take a closer look at his extraordinary playing career, and it transpires that as he made his way in the game, elements of his future vocation were falling into place without him—or anybody else—even realising.
We had some generational talents in that Bordeaux team—Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu, Christopher Dugarry—but we were trailing Milan 2–0 after the first leg of UEFA Cup quarter-final. It was the 90s, a goal against an Italian side was the hardest thing in football, we needed to score three. It was mission impossible.
Except that's exactly what we did, the impossible, against all odds. I believe it's also the turning point when Zidane began to truly see his potential."
—Zidane's game-winning assist supplied Bordeaux and Jean-Luc Dogon their most celebrated triumph in Europe
He first met David Bettoni, who now works as his assistant at Real Madrid, when they were playing together in the youth ranks at his formative club, Cannes. Stephane Plancque, the club’s opposition analyst, first crossed his path as a team-mate at Bordeaux. Zidane first encountered Antonio Pintus, the fitness coach he would later hire, when he joined Juventus from Bordeaux in 1996. The leading man may have been slow to express an interest in the starring role, but the supporting cast was already waiting in the wings.
As a player, Zidane was famously undemonstrative, a silent, brooding figure gliding balletically through opposition defences, with the mask of inscrutability only slipping during the episodic outbursts of violence that pockmarked his career. But beneath the surface, he was watching, listening, and absorbing in a manner that would not become fully apparent until he made the transition to coach.
“With hindsight, you can understand why he became a coach,” says Madrid-based sports journalist Frederic Hermel, whose biography of Zidane—entitled simply Zidane—was published last year. “He was a sponge. He listened an awful lot. He wasn’t someone who spoke very much, but he listened and he observed.”
Seen from a distance, Zidane’s taciturn nature might have seemed an obstacle to a career as a top-level coach, but those who have worked with him closely say that rather than a weakness, it is merely an indication that he values listening over speaking.
Zinedine Zidane changed my idea of football.
I held a stoic view on formation and player positioning before my time at Juventus. Working with Zidane soon made me realise: No setup is more productive than one which allows your best players to simply perform their magic. I started exploring and embracing fluidity."
—Carlo Ancelotti was inspired by Zidane to later design his signature midfield of four No 10s when managing Milan
“He stores things up so he can then reproduce them,” Guy Lacombe, one of Zidane’s first coaches in the Cannes youth academy, told So Foot in 2017. “It’s his first quality, furthermore, and the one that makes him the man he is: a listener who soaks up the words of others and knows how to learn. You don’t find that very often.”
While he may have been reserved in day-to-day life, Zidane took centre stage on the pitch, first at Cannes and then at Bordeaux, where he emerged as the most talented player in the French game. He was only 23 when he helped Bordeaux reach the UEFA Cup final in 1996, but in a sign of his influence, Witschge remembers him coming into the changing room to “pump up the team” ahead of the first leg against Bayern, for which he was suspended. (Bordeaux lost 2-0 in Munich in Zidane’s absence, and he was powerless to prevent a 3-1 defeat when he returned for the second leg a fortnight later.)
In spite of his tender age, there were also signs that he already possessed strong convictions about how football should be played.
“He liked attacking, attractive, technical football,” recalls Witschge, who had previously played for Ajax and Barcelona. “Good football. That’s how he played. He always said he liked the style of Ajax and also Barcelona at the time, the style of Johan Cruyff. We talked about it, the style of football and how the youth teams played at Ajax. He was interested in those kinds of things.”
It's fair to say that Zinedine Zidane hadn't been at his majestic best leading up to the final. He'd played well in general but it wasn't so much of him carrying the team—it was more of the team clicking into gear as a whole.
But when it mattered, in the game that mattered the most, Zidane won it for us. He's just born to bring trophies and happiness to people."
—Zidane was the definition of clutch during World Cup 1998 final to hand France and Stephane Guivarch their first ever World Cup trophy
🏆FIFA #WorldCup Rewind ⏪— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) April 18, 2018
⚽️And two unforgettable Final headers.
🇫🇷Simply Zinedine Zidane at France 1998.
Relive his finest hour when we show 🇫🇷🆚🇧🇷 in full on Friday 20 April at 16.00CET on the FIFA Word Cup Facebook page
Whatever Zidane might have thought he knew about football, he received a rude awakening upon arriving at Juventus in the summer of 1996. He was shocked by the intensity of the fitness drills he encountered in his first pre-season, and Portuguese left-back Dimas, who joined Juve from Benfica a few months later, recalls being similarly taken aback himself.
“To tell you the truth, it was a nightmare, physically,” Dimas tells Bleacher Report. “For the Italians, it was their day-to-day. They were examples. Guys who’d been there for years: Ciro Ferrara, Moreno Torricelli, Angelo Di Livio, Attilio Lombardo, Gianluca Pessotto. I can’t think of an Italian player who was a lazy guy. Even Alessandro Del Piero, with all his quality, worked like an animal. You just had to do it too. It helped me be a better player, and it surely helped Zidane be a better player as well.”
Working under lead fitness coach Giampiero Ventrone, Pintus helped to set the gruelling tempo of the squad’s physical work. Two decades later, Zidane appointed him as his strength and conditioning coach at Real Madrid in 2016, and the Italian’s exacting fitness sessions laid the foundations for the league and Champions League double that would follow the season after.
Zidane also used his understanding of the game’s physical side to convince Cristiano Ronaldo that sitting out occasional league games would enable him to hit peak form in the Champions League knockout rounds, as the Portuguese forward did to spectacular effect in each of his last two seasons at the Bernabeu.
The magic of Zinedine Zidane was that everything around him went into slow motion when he had the ball.
He always seemed to have so much time, his elegance and grace a joy to watch even in training. We were comfortably head and shoulders above the rest throughout the tournament because of Zidane."
—Zidane dominated Euro 2000 'in a way no individual had managed since Diego Maradona in 1986' as France and Marcel Desailly hoisted a second successive major international title
Beyond the energy-sapping work that he had to put in on the training ground at Juventus, what stuck with Zidane was the winning culture at the club. Head coach Marcello Lippi created an environment in which only the highest standards would be tolerated, and just as for his France teammate Didier Deschamps, who arrived in Turin two years before him, it had a lasting impact on Zidane’s conception of the game.
“It was in Italy that he learned about top-level competition in every sense,” Hermel tells Bleacher Report. “He learned about competitiveness as a player in Italy, and he also learned what it took to plan a season, with lots of physical work in the summer and again just after the winter break. As a coach, he’s an Italian.”
By the time Zidane joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2001 in a transfer that made him the most expensive player in football history, he was already a world and European champion with France, a double Serie A champion, a Ballon d’Or winner and a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year. The unforgettable volley he scored against Leverkusen in Glasgow at the end of his first season, which gave Real Madrid their ninth European Cup, further cemented his legacy as an all-time great.
As he made his way through the Real Madrid youth ranks in the early 2000s, Alvaro Mejia idolised Zidane from afar. The young centre-back broke into Real Madrid’s first-team squad during the 2003-04 season and discovered that although Zidane would make his displeasure plain when he felt the team’s performance levels were not up to scratch, he was also eager to pass on advice to younger players.
I was literally at a loss for words: It happened so quickly, the angle and the move was so unpromising, I completely didn't expect it to be scored.
It was only three or four minutes after the goal that I realise I had witnessed something historic from Zinedine Zidane."
—Rafa Honigstein, UEFA's commentator at Champions League final 2001/02, was not the only victim of temporary aphasia when Zidane volleyed in the match-winner that confirmed his immortality
“I remember some games when he was very upset,” Mejia tells Bleacher Report. “Like the Champions League quarter-final against Monaco in 2004, which we lost on away goals. He had the character of a winner, and he would show that, even in training. When the situation was going wrong, he was always the first to speak to the players and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’
But I also remember many times him coming to me and giving me advice on how to read the game or how to be ready for certain things. Like how to break a line with a pass. Never loud or shouting at me in a bad way. If he saw something from you that was not good, he’d come to you and tell you in a quiet way, to try to improve you.”
Zidane’s achievements on the pitch, coupled with the relationships he formed with key Real Madrid players while working as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant in the 2013/14 campaign, meant that by the time he was appointed as Benitez’s successor in early 2016, he already had the full respect of the changing room. By intelligently cultivating those changing-room bonds, he laid the foundations for the staggering success that would follow over the next two-and-a-half years.
From a tactical perspective, Zidane has not reinvented the wheel. His approach is all about creating a solid defensive structure and granting his attacking players liberty to express themselves.
God is back.
What I say may sound over the top but it's the truth: Everyone knows God exists in France and he's now back in the France team."
—Zidane added World Cup 2006 Golden Ball to his playing legacy as the then 34-year-old danced his last ballet with France and Thierry Henry
At the 2006 World Cup, France met Brazil in the quarter-finals. Against a midfield populated by Juninho, Gilberto Silva, Zé Roberto, Kaká and Ronaldinho, 34-year-old Zinedine Zidane reigned supreme. Le regarder partir.— These Football Times (@thesefootytimes) May 14, 2020
🎥 – @FIFAWorldCuppic.twitter.com/An0alUU8Hw
Hermel, who has gotten to know Zidane well during the Real Madrid coach’s 19 years in the Spanish capital, describes him as a tactical “pragmatist” whose reluctance to discuss his team’s tactics in public reflects a belief—developed during his time in Italy—that “secrecy is a part of strategy.” Still scarred by his experiences of having to sit through interminable team talks as a player, Zidane keeps his tactical instructions punchy and to the point.
“When I was a footballer, I hated it when the coach gave long team talks,” he tells Hermel in Zidane the book. “It was the same for my teammates, who stopped listening after 10 minutes. So today, when I have to speak to a player, I restrict myself to one or three instructions and always finish with, ‘Now go and enjoy yourself on the pitch.’ Nothing more, nothing less.”
Where Zidane excels as a coach is in reading the mood in the changing room and transmitting his own personal calmness to his players. For Dimas, who spent two years playing alongside Zidane at Juventus, it is an approach redolent of the way Lippi went about his work.
“I think he learned this with Lippi,” says the former Portugal international. “Because Lippi was this type of coach. Very calm. Very aggressive when he had to take big decisions. But most of the game, he’d give you the tranquillity of saying, ‘You guys are playing and you know what to do.’ That’s what I see with Zidane. He’s not always on top of his players. He lets them do their thing. When there’s a goal, he shows emotion. But he tries to give calmness to the team to let them play.”
When I hung up my boots I wanted to experience things outside football. I tried to do non-football things, meet with non-football people, take on non-football roles, but no matter.
You always end up going back to what gives you energy, what gives you life. For me that's always been and will always be football."
—Football management was never on Zidane's agenda upon his retirement; it found its way to him no less and the rest is history
Mejia, who left Madrid in 2007 and is now playing in Qatar, adds, “As a player, he always found the best way to speak to other players, and as a coach, he’s doing the same thing. He gets control of the changing room through speaking to the players, and on the other hand, he has the winning character that he gives to his players. It’s the perfect balance.”
An iron fist in a velvet glove. Just as he was as a player, so is Zidane as a coach.