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 tells Bleacher Report. “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.
Yet move to the dugout he did, dipping a toe in the water at Real Madrid as sporting director, assistant coach and manager of the club’s reserve team before taking the 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 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, a 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.
He first met David Bettoni, who works as his assistant at Madrid, when they were playing together in the youth ranks at his formative club, Cannes. Stephane Plancque, Madrid’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 at Madrid, 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.
“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.” Continue reading: