“One day I’m in, one day I’m out, then I’m a bit in, then we draw or lose and I’m out again,” Zinedine Zidane said. That was early February and it is also part of the reason why, almost four months later, he really is out. On Thursday morning, around 10.30, the Real Madrid manager drove into Valdebebas. By the time he drove back out two hours later, he was officially the former Real Madrid manager. Again. He had told some players the night before, around the time footage appeared of the Santiago Bernabéu on fire.
The statement from the club confirming his departure was released just after midday. It was polite without being especially effusive and only 102 words long. There are no plans for a press conference or a farewell; the club’s media chose to turn the page, the statement followed by studied silence. The only player Zidane could say goodbye to in person was Lucas Vázquez, undergoing his rehabilitation at Valdebebas.
The statement was short but it had said enough, the key message delivered: this was his decision, not ours. He had chosen to leave; all they could do was respect that. And then not mention him any more. This is the third time Zidane has walked away: once as a player, twice as a manager. Each time the decision was unilateral, each time he was under contract and each time he waived any salary still due. That is a lot of money. “I’ll make it very easy for the club,” he said earlier this month.
But that is not to say it is only about him or that he hasn’t felt pushed to the door. These are not decisions taken in a vacuum, the club complicit in creating the conditions that see him leave.
Nor are they surprised: Madrid have known this was coming for some time. Although they do not welcome the idea that someone else defines what happens next, they had prepared for it too. A search had begun for a replacement that they were optimistic would conclude with Max Allegri signing only to find that the Italian may have other ideas. And so to other candidates, such as Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino, or so they hope. Then there’s Raúl, coaching the B team.
Zidane has been talking like a man more out than in for a while, publicly and privately. He recently denied reports he had told the players he was going before the end of the season – “why would I say that now?” he protested – but that was certainly how some of them had interpreted his words. In the media, too, the hints have been increasingly heavy and the questioning ever more insistent.
But this isn’t recent. At some level, it was there the moment he came back as coach in March 2019, not entirely convinced of anything except that somehow he had to. Before that even: when he walked out at the very top in May 2018, a three-times Champions League winner, it wasn’t just because he could, because it was a hell of a time and a way to go. Upon his return, he was in a position of authority but that was never going to be eternal. Not even winning guarantees that.
“I’ve been locked up for two weeks, as if I was in a cage, and I feel like a fight,” Zidane said in February, and so he went and found one. He had tested positive for Covid-19 and isolated at home, watching his team struggle. Out of the cup to third-tier Alcoyano, out of the Super Cup against Athletic Bilbao and seemingly out of the league, they had also been on edge in Europe, defeated twice by Shakhtar Donetsk and facing the prospect of not getting through the group for the first time.
They did progress of course, which tends to be the way, Zidane placing faith in the old guard again and surviving another crisis. In a press conference, he demanded respect for the group. “I’m angry,” he said.
He was angrier than anyone could remember and the focus fell mostly on his demands that a generation that had given the club so much be allowed one more season to defend the title, a generation that would ultimately include him. And then, he said, there would be changes. That would include him. It would almost certainly include Sergio Ramos, the captain whom he wanted to receive a contract extension but who still has not signed.
“There’s a lot of talk about a lot of things, about changing the coach, but we’re going to fight until the end and we deserve respect. Tell me to my face that you want to get rid of me, not behind my back,” Zidane said to journalists, yet it wasn’t only them he was telling.
He knows the club, it is always said, and that is true – for better or worse. He knows rumours and attacks do not always come out of nowhere; he knew that reports after defeat against Shakhtar claiming his sacking was hours away were not fabricated. He is aware of where the whispers come from, that certain tribunes carry certain voices from inside the club to the outside, criticisms indirectly but not exactly subtly aired in public, a lack of trust in him filtered and ideas floated.
So he vowed to see it out, to fight to win something, to allow these players with whom he has achieved so much – to allow himself – to add to the 11 trophies they have won with him as coach, one every 24 games. Together they competed and somewhere along the line he decided that the time had come. It was better for him, and for them. As the season came towards a close, no title to celebrate, no departing at the top this time, Zidane was asked whether Real Madrid could improve under a different manager. “Definitely,” he said.