Commentary

Why Real's Populist Move Could Pay Off

Real Madrid on Monday fired Rafael Benitez as head coach, immediately installing Real Madrid Castilla (the club’s second-team) coach Zinedine Zidane as the Spaniard’s successor for the remainder of the season. Zidane, who is a former La Liga and UEFA Champions League winner with Real as a player in the early 2000s, will be formally unveiled in a press conference on Tuesday.

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The 43-year-old former France international, who served as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti during the 2013-14 campaign in which Real won both the Copa del Rey and UCL titles, said little during the announcement on Monday. "Tomorrow I will be with the team -- and get to work,” he said. “Thanks to everyone. This is an important day for me -- like all new coaches I have emotion, more than as a player. But from tomorrow it will be something else. I will give all the heart I have for this club. And try for everything to come out well."

On the face of it, Benitez’s firing seems harsh when you consider that he leaves halfway through a season in which his team sits in third, just four points behind leader Atletico Madrid. He also guided this team to a .740 winning percentage, which is his own personal best at any club since 2001. In fact, if this were the English Premier League, Benitez would be an early frontrunner for Manager of the Year. Of course, this is Spain, where only one of three teams can reasonably claim to have title, or indeed, trophy, aspirations at all. Naturally, the standards for winning are higher.

Having said that, four points with half a season to go is still far from the end of the world. But if you believe the reports, Benitez wasn’t fired solely on the basis of his performance. After all, this is Madrid, and politics plays a heavy role. It never seemed as though superstar Cristiano Ronaldo liked the Spaniard. For one thing, the Portuguese star’s goal tally is way down from last season, and the pair seemed to tussle constantly during Benitez’s turbulent six-month spell in charge. Other players, including Isco, James Rodriguez, and Marcelo, were also said to have problems with him, too. 

Winning big games is a problem when you don’t have the locker room in your corner -- just ask former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho. Under Benitez, Real managed just a single point in three games against Atleti, Barcelona and Villarreal (Spain’s current top four). Moreover, the 4-0 hammering at home to Barca in late November was absolutely embarrassing. 

So, why Zidane?

Well, for one thing, re-installing Mourinho (as some suggested) would have been way too controversial a move (i.e. not everyone in Madrid liked him), and there aren’t many other world-class managers available at the moment. Regardless, Off The Post doesn’t seriously think that Mourinho was ever in the frame to replace Benitez. Instead, he thinks Zidane’s appointment is the ultimate populist move from Perez—and it just might work, too. 

If Rafa was polarizing for both players and fans, yet he managed to guide this highly-talented team to within four points of the top of the table with half a season to go, then why not install someone that everyone likes? 

Really, who doesn’t like Zinedine Zidane? Sure, he will always be remembered for the 2006 World Cup final head-butt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi for which he was sent-off and France eventually lost on penalties, but for those who actually love the beautiful game, he will always be fondly remembered for his sublime skill, vision and finishing ability. Though he might be a man of few words, he was an undoubted legend and leader for both Real and France.

Even if you’re Cristiano Ronaldo and you’ve won everything at both the club and personal levels and are now chasing all-time records everywhere, you still have respect for Zidane. Why, because nine times out of ten, even the great Cristiano would have mis-hit that stunning left-footed volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 UCL final.

Elsewhere in the team, Gareth Bale will be boosted by the fact that the great man who was instrumental in bringing him to Real Madrid in the first place is back on the bench. Zidane, as we know, is a huge fan of the Welshman, and his assuming the role of head coach could possibly bridge the uneasy relationship between Ronaldo and Bale. Younger, newer players like James and Isco will only be too eager to learn from one of the greatest players of all time.

Indeed, when you have players of the caliber of Real Madrid, tactics aren’t really what’s needed to succeed. What’s needed is a man to bring everyone together to accomplish a common goal—a great motivator, someone who instills and inspires confidence in a team. Zidane’s presence alongside Ancelotti in 2014/15 certainly helped this team. Perez is now hoping he can do it again.

Of course, much is being made of the fact that president Florentino Perez has now named an 11th different manager to lead Real Madrid in the 12 seasons (over two tenures) in which he has presided over the club. As ESPN notes, of the six different managers hired by Perez, four failed to make it to their second season.

In other words, despite his unalienable claim to being one of the club’s greatest-ever players, don’t expect Zidane to be given much time beyond the end of the season if things don’t work out (read: Real fails to win a trophy). Of course, Los Blancos are already out of the Copa del Rey, thanks to Benitez unscrupulously fielding an ineligible player (Denis Cheryshev) during a Copa match last month.

That leaves either La Liga or the UCL. Since Real has not won La Liga since 2011-12, the club undoubtedly wants to reclaim the former. With the UCL second round tie against AS Roma some six weeks away, Zidane will have six La Liga games to get this team into fighting shape -- and five of his first six opponents are-- at the moment, anyway -- below mid-table teams.

With that in mind, if Real was ever going to fire Benitez and replace him with someone that might actually be able to win over the locker room, now would be the perfect time to do it. 

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