Zinedine Zidane has always made power look beautiful.
Before Zidane there was a boy, kicking in the streets. “I always chose to be Platini. I let my friends share the names of my other idols between themselves,” he told Esquire. In 1980s Marseille, Zidane would have been far from the only petit-Platini, but he was the only one aiming too low. Platini had won a Champions League, but never made the final of a World Cup — Zidane’s goals would decide both.
After retiring, Zinedine Zidane seemed again to be following Michel Platini — a period of well-tailored lurking in the director’s boxes at the Bernabeu, an embarrassing endorsement of Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup. A happy life of yachts and bribes awaited. But then he took a risk — he decided to become a manager, and under the brightest lights of all. Failure might disrupt his Platini project. Was he going to be any good at this?
There were occasions to doubt Zidane as a manager. Like in the second leg against Wolfsburg, in the Champions League quarterfinals, when he left James Rodriguez on the bench and started Casemiro. Florentino Pérez must have had a fit. Casemiro’s a kicky prohibitor, exactly the Makélélé type Pérez spent the noughts refusing to invest in. Never a galactico. A player to steal a point in el clasico away, but not when Real were already down 0-2 on aggregate. Real needed a 2-0 to reach extra time, a three-goal win if André Schürrle or Julian Draxler made a single goal. A match for James, Jese, Isco—anyone but Casemiro.
Still, Zidane played Casemiro, as the most advanced midfielder. At kickoff Marca must have already been drafting the denunciations. Perhaps management wasn’t for him after all. Great players tend not to make great managers, and players of Zidane’s particular greatness almost never do. Go through the list — Pelé knew better than to try, Diego Maradona was a preening embarrassment. Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola both played and managed well, but Zidane never wanted to be that kind of prophet. Otherwise modern management’s best player may be Carlo Ancelotti —who, relative to Zidane, was merely very good.
And it wasn’t as though he’d needed to learn tactics as a player. Tactics are what the rest of football needs to survive a player like Zidane: how the opposing eleven hoped to prevail against a single player far beyond their own ability, and how Zidane’s own remaining ten allowed him—paceless, lumpy genius — the freedom to inspire without collapsing every time the opponent gets the ball.
Not that Zidane was tactically poor — watch him in the 1998 World Cup Final, calling for a run from Willy Sagnol, then turning back infield to convince Ronaldinho not to cover, then darting a 40-meter pass into acres of channel. There was no doubt he knew the game. But he’d always known more about how to break a team’s shape than how to set it up. Perhaps he understood the sport in a way that couldn’t be reduced to whiteboard talks and little shapes of cones—if what great players did could be explained, they wouldn’t need to play. The easier the greatness came — one feared — the less he’d be able to communicate it.
Besides, did Zidane have the temperament to manage? Wasn’t he too hot-headed? Never mind the headbutt on Marco Materazzi —14 red cards is a lot in a career, especially for a player so gifted that he’d have been able to get away with never committing to a single tackle. Most of them were for revenge. “If you look at the fourteen red cards I had in my career, twelve of them were for retaliation,” he said in that Esquire interview. What would this mean for a manager? Did Real Madrid in particular need a retaliation enthusiast in a key sporting role? Wasn’t Zidane just a little too special, a little too raw, too perfectly a player or a poet, to ever make a good coach?
In the event, Real beat Wolfsburg 3-0. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick. It wasn’t his most inspired — a tap-in from a cross that twice ought to have been cleared, a header from a corner, a late free kick. Casemiro’s passing was predictably limited, but his energy instrumental to the twenty-five minutes of furious high pressing that gave Madrid their early lead. Real went through 3-2 on aggregate, beat Manchester City in the semifinals, and won the final against Atletico, the team’s eleventh Champions League title and second in four years.
Since his appointment in January of last year, Zinedine Zidane has won a full 75 percent of the games he’s managed. In addition to that Champions League, his spring-semester Madrid closed to finish just a point behind Barcelona in La Liga. This year, by time of writing, they’d opened up a six-point gap. If you count Super Cups and Club World Cups, Zidane’s squad has won more trophies than they’ve lost games. After that 0-2 at Wolfsburg, Real went undefeated for a Spanish-record 40 consecutive games. At any other club Zidane would already be a coaching legend — but at Real Madrid, there are still suspicions.
One suspicion is that Real Madrid ought to win a whole lot of games —that if they play Atletico in the finals of the Champions League, a win is more like meeting expectations than exceeding them. Real is the richest sporting organization in the world, with annual revenue near €600 million and possibly the greatest collection of pure match winners the club game has ever seen.
Atletico, by contrast, have annual revenues around a third of Real’s. Their best player is a centerback. In the two recent Champions League finals against their crosstown rivals, they started a hobbling Diego Costa and a ghost Fernando Torres as center forwards. And yet in 2014 Atletico led until the 94th minute, and in 2016 Real scored an offside goal, watched Antoine Griezmann clatter a penalty off the bar, and still drew 1-1 over 120 minutes before winning on penalties.
And yet — these are Champions League finals. Real Madrid are the most successful side in Europe over the last five years, and Zidane’s iteration couldn’t have done any more than win the tournament last year. His win percentage is roughly equal to those of Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini, and meaningfully above those of José Mourinho and Rafa Benitez’s, but his Real have looked a lot like all everyone else’s: they have the best players in the world, usually look disjointed and confused, and almost always win anyway. They’re the only great modern side to so consistently look like less than the sum of their parts.
With a side like Real, it’s hard to say too much about the manager — the squad may be unmanageable, but then again it may not need managing. The key problem seems to be less tactical than political — how to keep all those stars happy with only one ball to share, how to convince enough of them to play defense in any one match, how to pick a team that works as well as pleases the president. Less than the sum — who cares? The parts are so good that as long as everyone shows up, the side will win more often than it loses.
Managing every big team, since the television and sponsorship money’s gotten big, has been about convincing twenty-five-year-old millionaires they need to sprint back forty yards to cover their fullbacks. At Madrid, it’s about convincing a locker room full of stars — galaxies, even — to orbit in a calm and planetary order. Zidane seems to have succeeded here, but he’s succeeded in a way no one seems able to explain.
Asked about the headbutt years later, during a television appearance on Canal+, Zidane apologized, but admitted no regret. The French word he used was “geste” — an action, an instance, a gesture. He was very sorry to the children who had been watching, but regretting what he’d done would mean Materazzi’s behavior was correct. He could not argue with his punishment, but he felt that the true fault lay with the provocateur, and that the game ought to do more to punish these initial wrongdoers, who throughout his career had walked away while he, Zidane, was punished.
It is likely the most famous headbutt of all time. We are asked to believe —by Zidane — that this is the first time his sister has been insulted on a football pitch. If not, where were the other headbutts? Was Materazzi such an innovator? With exactly 10 minutes remaining in a 681-game career? We are asked to believe that this headbutt — a motion of the entire body, lasting several seconds, within sight of four referees — was involuntary and required, a reaction of tribal or amoebic honor, something that could not be resisted.
Go back even further. Zidane is so fascinating a player that there are YouTube compilations of his red cards. He is correct that almost all of them are instances of retaliation. He is delivering elbows on the way back upfield from corner kicks, stomping on defenders, kicking out at ankles. There’s one other headbutt, against Hamburg’s Jochen Kientz, but it’s far less dramatic, part of the usual pattern. Kientz had had the nerve to tackle him, and they’d ended up in a tangle on the floor, and as he moved to stand Zidane sprung forward a little, striking Kientz with the left crown of his head. Like most of Zidane’s red cards, it’s quick enough and close enough to natural that you can imagine him getting away with it.
Still it’s hard to find a precedent for what happened that night in Berlin. Zidane’s previous offenses had in general been disguised, in a way that implies prioritization: he preferred not to be sent off. Essential to deceit is a desire to be seen as following the rules. Compare this canniness with the headbutt on Materazzi. Compare a crime that hides itself within the ordinary violence of the game against a crime that steps entirely outside it. Compare, perhaps, the petty burglar stuffing bills beneath his mattress with Sepp Blatter’s gleefully open corruption. Essential to displaying power is a recklessness about who knows the truth.
Say then that this final headbutt was different from any other red card we’ve seen. Remember: “ce geste,” this gesture. A gesture refers, communicates on topics larger than the motion itself. A gesture illustrates the state of things. Materazzi had something to say. What gesture? A gesture about personal force, the kind already gathered and the kind yet to come.
It’s been frequent, in the decade since, to see the headbutt as a loss of control, an instance of being overwhelmed. Zidane himself has encouraged this reading. But it’s not so — the other red cards, maybe. A gesture is a small motion referring to a larger truth. It illustrates the state of things. Materazzi had made one remark; now Zidane had his rebuttal. The headbutt said: my feelings matter, more than any match — even this one. The headbutt said that Zidane was at the center.
Remember that the match was slipping out of his control. He’d come too far under that early panenka, watched it rise up towards the bar — and rise, and rise, and glance — his stride tightened, he rose onto his toes, and then it spun down, just beyond the line, and he dashed away cheering. Otherwise the goal did not belong to him. It was Thierry Henry’s ball, Florent Malouda’s run that made the penalty. All night Zidane hadn’t been able to get the ball past Fabio Cannavaro, much less Gianluigi Buffon.
There was a late chance, in the 104th minute. Free to attack a cross from the right, Zidane bulleted a header toward goal. Coming off his head, fast and straight and certainly below the bar, it must have felt practically unsaveable, even cleaner than the two he’d scored against Brazil eight years earlier. But somehow Buffon got a hand to it. Zidane crumpled away, weary and anguished. He’d turned thirty-four that summer.
Six minutes later Materazzi was lying on the ground. The headbutt said: this game belongs to me. The story of this World Cup was a story about Zinedine Zidane — not about what he couldn’t do to the Italian defence, but about what the Italian defence couldn’t do to him.
And at the end? The headbutt worked. Not for France. David Trezeguet daydreamed the second penalty over Buffon’s bar, and every Italian darted theirs past Fabien Barthes. Zidane watched from the dressing room. But when the French team returned to Paris, the crowd chanted “Zizou, Zizou.” President Jacques Chirac issued proclamations testifying to the strength of his character.
When the tenth anniversary of that final came, last summer, articles were written in commemoration — not of Materazzi (who manages in India these days); nor Buffon, possibly history’s best in his position; nor the genius Cannavaro, who likely ought to have won the player-of-the-tournament award given to Zidane — but of the headbutt, which remains perhaps the most memorable footballing moment of the last quarter-century. A moment about Zinedine Zidane, and how he felt. A man bigger than the match, bigger than the side —bigger than the sport itself.
God, what a beautiful player. Zidane never seemed quite natural in his body when the ball was gone —stalking and glaring, his left hip tight from years of planting, his right side a little looser, eyes incurably dark beneath the floodlights, hands curling at the end of his arms. Then the ball would come, and he’d open to a roundness, a beauty, shirt tonguing out of his shorts, head gleaming yet displaying always the sharp point of the hair he’d chosen not to have, at once martial and monastic. He could imagine the ball through spaces unknown to his provokers, discover undefended acres even in San Siro or the Bernabeu. In moments it seemed less ball to him than daemon, a scrap of soul that’d somehow ended up outside him.
So beautiful, in fact, that it was sometimes possible to forget what he’d achieved. Somehow for players like Zidane the language of beauty can be more natural than the language of victory. When they win it’s — well, yes of course they won, but did you see that volley? From such talent, we infer that winning is a byproduct, an accident that happens when the game’s played well. It can be comforting, for you and me and Florentino, for the data devotees stopping to tweet about a passing move — to see in football something other than a ninety-minute battle sponsored by Barclays and Gazprom. Some idea that the sport has to do with the things that are the best in us. Perhaps we need that most now — need the picture of the beautiful Zidane, the pied-noir genius throbbing at the heart of the French national team, the boy in the streets of Marseille imagining himself Platini.
But it’s the language of beauty that makes it so easy to miss why Zidane’s been so effective at Real Madrid. Zidane’s real language is power. “I always chose to be Platini.” Of course. “I let my friends share the names of my other idols between themselves.” Generous, but look who’s doing the allowing. There always was a climbing, a purpose. In the French press — as Philippe Auclair explained in Eight by Eight — there are constant reports about Zidane’s ambition, his habit of grudges. Certainly he seems to have been an eager participant in late-Blatter FIFA corruption, certainly true that he assisted Henry conspicuously little in the period they were two of the world’s best attackers, that he’s handled himself strangely in the politics of the Algerian Kabyle community — all those darker edges have been written up.
Here, let’s just say that — no matter which Real Madrid players anyone’s interviewed, no matter what questions have been asked — so far evidence for Zidane’s capacity as manager is in greater supply than theories about the source of that capability. All most people have to offer is that the players play for him. They take direction. They track back, communicate, behave like players rather than like galaxies. And of course they do. A man stands in the center of a field, dictating the motion of twenty men around him. He is an attacking midfielder. Why do we insist on calling him a poet rather than a tyrant?
Art and manipulation are more closely related than we think. Both begin with seeing clearly, both return an action to the world. But one bends towards beauty, and the other towards power. With Zidane — rising from barefoot Marseille through Cannes and Turin and Madrid, kicking back against his tacklers, knocking Materazzi over — it was always power.
Zidane’s gift was that he could win by making the game beautiful rather than making it ugly. But the means and ends were always clear. He’s always gotten what he wanted. That it happened to be beautiful? We’re lucky to have seen it. Beauty was the byproduct, the accident on the way upwards to a greater goal. Remember this in later decades, when he becomes Platini a second time.
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