What Zidane brings to Real Madrid that Perez couldn't

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Real Madrid, a sparkling side that president Florentino Perez packed with 'Galácticos' or prodigious talents, now has greater balance under team manager Zenedine Zidane.

Zenedine Zidane took over as Real Madrid's manager in January 2016, and his team won the UEFA Champions League in May that year. | AFP

In 2003, Real Madrid sold Claude Makélélé to Chelsea in a summer transfer. Makélélé was a defensive midfielder, or the 'engine room' of the team. The club’s president, Florentino Perez was on a mission to sign expensive footballing superstars for the team, in what was dubbed as the " Galácticos " project. Perez took the presidency of the club in the year 2000, building his campaign around the financial problems and allegations of mismanagement surrounding the club. The incumbent president thought that he had done enough with the team winning the UEFA Champions league in 1998 and 2000. But, Perez had a trick up his sleeve.

 

He envisioned the best players in the world playing for his club à la the mythical Real Madrid team of the 1950s that boasted attacking talent such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, and Raymond Kopa. In order to achieve this, Perez famously promised to sign the brilliant Portuguese winger, Luis Figo, if elected. Only problem was, he was playing for their bitter rivals Barcelona at the time. He not only managed to stage the ultimate transfer coup in buying Figo after his successful campaign, but also vowed to bring one global superstar to the club every year; Zidane and Ronaldo followed suit in the next two years, and the club went on to win the UEFA Champions league in 2002 and the league in 2003.

Perez’s grand idea was to combine a team of Zidanes and Pavones , or, “Zidanes y Pavones” (after the Real Madrid youth player Francisco Pavon ). The Zidanes were the unworldly talents who would be the dessert; Pavones were the youth-teamers, who would provide the local touch. From the days of Fransisco Gento to La Quinta del Buitre to Raúl González Blanco , Real Madrid had a proud culture of producing world-beating youngsters. What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, his problems were just getting started.

Florentino Perez was hell bent on making Real Madrid the most valuable football club on the planet. During the first year of his tenure, they were in fifth place in terms of revenues. Hence, he relied on a method of buying attacking players who played an exciting brand of football, which endeared him to marketeers and a burgeoning fanbase. In his quest for the global summit, he pursued signing David Beckham from Manchester United. Sure enough, Real Madrid was catapulted to the top of the revenue pile in a couple of seasons — a position that they continuously held until this year.

Unfortunately, this policy also meant that he did not value defensive players as they were not as glamourous. He was loath to raising the salaries of defensive personnel like Makélelé . Beckham was a right-sided midfielder, and Real Madrid did not need him as they already had a much better player in Luis Figo. Simply put, his decisions at the time were based more on commercial factors. Naturally, Makélelé left the club in a huff.

It was under these circumstances of Makélelé’s departure that Zinedine Zidane made his famously prescient quote:

“Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

 

Clearly, he was not afraid of expressing himself.

After Makélelé was sold to Chelsea, they were on the ascendancy. Real Madrid? They failed to win the league, or get past the round of sixteen in the Champions league for a long time. No youngster stepped up to the plate. Many coaches came and went, courtesy of the trigger-happy Señor Perez. Stories of him pressuring the coach to field the most glamourous superstars, and flapping away requests for acquiring quality defensive players were aplenty.

Real Madrid were the quintessential example of commercial success not leading to success in terms of silverware. None of Perez’s defensive recruits could prove themselves. As for poor ol' Pavon, he never quite lived up to expectations, and left the club in 2007, a year after Perez had resigned from the post of president.

 

Real Madrid limped on for the next few seasons, winning the league twice. But the team did not have the razzmatazz of the Perez era. To add insult to injury, a man named Josep Guardiola had taken charge of their eternal rivals Barcelona and taken them to dizzying heights by winning the treble in the 2008-09 season. The Barcelona team was spearheaded by the effervescent Lionel Messi, and had other players who were superstars in their own right; what made matters worse for Real Madrid was that Barcelona has won the 2009 UEFA Champions league final with eight homegrown players .

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Florentino Perez was at it again, announcing his candidacy. After his re-election, he promptly went back to the same policy of accumulating Galacticos, bringing Cristiano Ronaldo and co. to the club. This time, though, his team was always in the shadow of arguably the best ever club side in the world. He went back to firing a few more coaches, including Carlo Ancelotti a year after delivering the much-awaited Champions league. Then came Rafael Benitez, who suspiciously betrayed his instincts, playing his most attacking line-up against Barcelona , and paid the price; for a Real Madrid fan, it was déjà vu all over again. The footballing world would have pardoned the fans for fearing the worst when club icon Zidane, who had no managing experience, was appointed the team's manager in 2016.

To everyone’s surprise, Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions league last season under Zidane’s stewardship. However, there is more to his method compared to his predecessors. For one, there has been no evidence to date suggesting that Florentino Perez stepped over his toes in matters of team selection — Zidane is very much his own man. The golden boy James Rodriguez is a regular on the bench; there was no intent to play the wonderkid Martin Ødegaard who arrived amidst much fanfare; his teams appear quite balanced.

Zidane has also managed to give sufficient playing time to more squad members. Of course, frequent injuries have played their part, but the fact that the player with the 12th most number of minutes on the pitch in the 2016-17 league (Gareth Bale) has only clocked 52% of the total minutes as compared to a corresponding figure of ~63% from two seasons ago shows that he’s been able to manage squad rotation well. In fact, the cornerstone of his team is the midfield lynchpin Casemiro, who has evoked memories of Makélélé. Notably, his importance to the team was highlighted by Diego Simeone , no less.

After a stuttering win at Villareal, Real Madrid sit pretty at the top of the league table with one game in hand. In Morata, Vasquez, Nacho, Casilla and Carvajal, Real have several promising home-grown players in their first team (although all of them had a stint outside before being brought back), two of whom had an active part to play in the comeback.

Now, the shoe is firmly on the other boot for Barcelona, suffering a 4-0 drubbing in the hands of PSG which will probably knock them out of the UEFA Champions league, barring a miracle; their perennial river of youngsters has run dry at the time being, and are busy looking outside for solutions.

It is early days still in the Zidane and Florentino Perez saga. But, in Zidane’s second homecoming, life has indeed come a full circle.

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