As Real Madrid president Florentino Perez wielded the axe on yet another head coach last Monday, and did so in the knowledge that this was, in all likelihood, going to be his final gamble and last chance to salvage his rapidly disintegrating reputation.
Primarily it was a bid to save his own skin by replacing Rafa Benitez, a head coach who was almost as unpopular as he is with a club legend and perhaps the only man who could turn the mood of discontent at the Bernabeu with his mere appearance in the dug-out.
While Zinedine Zidane has been getting gently eased towards the top job at Real Madrid for some time now, the plan was never to appoint him this early and certainly not midway through a challenging campaign. Perez hit the panic button but events over the past six months somewhat forced his hand and he knew he had to act if he were to retain any ambitions of maintaining his role as club president for much longer.
2015 was an unqualified nightmare as far as Florentino Perez and Real Madrid were concerned. For starters, it was a trophyless year, which is rarely tolerated at this club but to make matters far worse, it was a year in which Barcelona won the treble with some exhilarating football and a team that is still young enough to dominate world football for the next couple of years at least.
The sacking of Carlo Ancelotti was as much a bid to save face as anything and a refusal to accept that a season in which Real Madrid were so inferior to their immortal rivals could be tolerated. In reality, though, it was the wrong call and letting the man who had won the Champions League only 12 months earlier, and in doing so fulfilled the holy grail in terms of this club by winning ‘la decima’,was an error in judgement particularly in the absence of an obvious candidate to replace him.
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Rafa Benitez was probably the best man available with an impressive CV that includes two Spanish titles as well as several major European trophies. In the grand scheme of things, the appointment of Benitez was by no means the biggest error Florentino Perez made in 2015 and it may even have proved to be the right call had the former Valencia boss been given more time. The arrival of Benitez was only the prelude to an error-ridden six months as Perez and Real Madrid veered from one PR disaster to the next.
First came the handling of the Iker Casillas departure as the legendary goalkeeper was reportedly hounded out of the club by the president and ultimately left without anything like the send-off a man who had made more than 700 appearances for Los Blancos deserved. The sight of the 34-year-old goalkeeper alone and in tears in a hastily arranged press conference to announce his exit was about as undignified an exit as anyone could have wished for and whether the rumours about Perez were true or not, it certainly marked a souring in the relationship between the club’s fans and its president.
To make matters worse after a protracted chase the club failed to land David De Gea, the man who had been touted as Casillas’ long-term successor for some time. The almost farcical events on deadline day did not reflect at all well on Florentino Perez, as arguably the biggest football club in the world failed to land a player supposedly by virtue of a faulty fax machine.
Although Real Madrid made a reasonable start to the campaign, the pressure was already clearly building on the president and a 4-0 home humiliation in El Clasico brought things to a head. The white handkerchiefs were out in force and despite Rafa Benitez getting the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’ soon after the game, it was in fact Florentino Perez who the club’s fans were calling for the resignation of during the closing moments of the defeat to Barcelona.
Perez could not afford another embarrassing episode, or so it seemed, but perhaps the biggest gaff of all was still to come. Los Blancos inexplicably fielded the ineligible Denis Cheryshev in their Copa del Rey tie at Cadiz, resulting in their expulsion from the competition and red faces all round at the Santiago Bernabeu. That same dodgy fax machine again got the blame, but to say those excuses were beginning to wear thin would be putting it mildly.
After everything that has happened over the past few months, the Real Madrid fans, who are not known for their patient qualities, were understandably baying for blood. Primarily it was that of their president but when Perez didn’t take the hint and resign as he did somewhat unexpectedly back in February 2006 to end his first term in the job, they turned their attention to Benitez.
Although the Madrid-born coach had guided the side safely through into the Champions League knock-out stages, finishing ahead of PSG in their group, and they headed into the brief winter break only a couple of points off top spot in La Liga, a few abject displays had begun to heighten the pressure on him and add to the mood of frustration in the stands.
Even enormous home wins by 8-0 and 10-2 margins had done little to improve the mood and it was looking increasingly implausible that both Rafa Benitez and Florentino Perez would see out the season. In a choice between the manager and the president there was only ever going to be one outcome as Perez took matters into his own hands by sacking a man who has won trophies galore in favour of an inexperienced coach, whose only stint in management has been a fairly unimpressive 18 month rule over Real Madrid’s reserve side.
In Zinedine Zidane though, he has bought himself time. At a club that has seen many of the true greats of world football pass through its doors, it takes something to stand out, but Zizou is one of the most iconic and popular figures to have played for Los Blancos in the club’s long and illustrious history. Although more rational-minded Madridistas will question whether Zidane is really the right man to turn around the fortunes of the club, he will receive their immediate and absolute backing, a luxury not afforded to any of his recent predecessors.
He was always destined for the top job from the minute Florentino Perez returned as club president in 2009 and recruited Zidane, who he had signed as a player almost a decade earlier, in an initial advisory role. However, the plan was not to throw him in this quickly and his fast-tracking to the role of first-team head coach is a little surprising given his relative struggles since taking the role as boss of Real Madrid Castilla in 2014.
The Frenchman found the switch to management challenging, even in the limited level of Spain’s 3rd tier, and accusations that he lacks the communication and motivational skills to be a head coach have never been far away. Castilla only finished 6th in the Segunda B in his first term and although they are doing a bit better this season, the general consensus remained that Zidane as a football manager was still very much a work in progress and wasn’t ready for the hottest of hot-seats.
However, just 11 days into the New Year and that is exactly where he finds himself. Comparisons to Pep Guardiola were immediately batted away by Zizou in his first press conference and perhaps rightly so. He might not be an inspirational speaker or even a tactical mastermind but significantly he is a figurehead and someone that the club and its supporters can unite behind.
There is an aura about Zidane and with the right people working alongside him, it could just work out. He’s obviously a club legend and will rightfully gain the utmost respect of the players, most of whom he will already know so it will be much easier for him to walk into a dressing room not short on egos, than it would have been for almost anyone else that was potentially available.
There is certainly some method in the madness but it doesn’t take away from the fact that sacking Rafa Benitez and bringing in Zidane was a desperate and potentially final act by a president whose popularity is at an all-time low.
It was a move primarily to save his own skin but if it works out, it could prove to be a brilliant gamble and one that Perez will unquestionably reap the rewards from given the Frenchman has always been his man. If it doesn’t then, quite simply, it will be Florentino Perez and not the immortal figure of Zidane who bears the brunt of the anger from the terraces at the Santiago Bernabeu, and it will almost certainly bring his 2nd term as club president to an end.
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