Heart of football: Zidane do a Guardiola? Perez should not hold his breath

When Real Madrid president Florentino Perez fired Rafael Benitez last Monday to replace him with Zinedine Zidane, one was tempted to ask: Mr Presidente, what kept you from doing this for so long?

Perez is the most star-struck man in football.

His presidency is defined by the term "los Galacticos" - the Superstars - although the original big-name hunter at Madrid was Santiago Bernabeu, the man whose name the stadium bears.

In the 1950s, Bernabeu persuaded the club to pay what was then considered the earth to recruit Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa, Jose Santamaria and Francisco Gento.

Maybe it was easier in those days. But having been a player, then director of football, manager, coach and finally president in his lifetime at the club, Santiago Bernabeu knew what he was doing when he became president and stocked his team with the players to give it such grandeur.

Perez was nine when his dad, Eduardo, first took him to the stadium. He was a great deal older when, as a billionaire construction magnate, he was elected president.

But Florentino was still chided by his father.

I recall a game at the Bernabeu when Zidane toyed with a defender, keeping the ball off the ground and out of the opponent's reach by bouncing it gently on his toes, on his knee, on his thigh.

"Wonderful," said Eduardo Perez. "But Zidane isn't di Stefano."

How do I know he said that? Florentino told me, while his father was sitting behind him in the presidential box.

This business of living up to his father's ideals, let alone Santiago Bernabeu's, drives the man who drives Real Madrid.

In his first term as president, from the year 2000 to 2006, he did the business deals that he claimed cleared the club's heavy debts. And he hired Luis Figo, David Beckham, the Brazilian Ronaldo (Luis Nazario da Lima), and Zidane.

His finest hour as president was when Zidane scored the most wonderful goal to win the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow in 2002.

Look it up on YouTube, I promise you will never see a more beautiful execution of the volley than when Zizou, just inside the penalty area, watched a spiralling cross from Roberto Carlos come down over his left shoulder and, with his left foot raised almost to the height of his waist, strike a shot so cleanly, so accurately, so forcefully that no goalkeeper could save.


Zidane retains to this day the affection and the trust of President Perez. The Frenchman became the link between Florentino's first spell in charge and his second that began in June 2009.

Zizou is still there. He became adviser to the president, he was on the bench as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti when Real reclaimed the Champions League title two years ago. And Zidane's four sons are all trying to make their way through the ranks of Real's junior teams.

They might not grow to be even a quarter of what their Papa was on the field. That is harsh, but we would all struggle to name a second-generation genius who could follow in the footprints of an exceptional father.

The president, of course, is still pursuing the best players on earth.

His current collection has Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale up front; James Rodriguez, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco fighting for places in the creative part of midfield.

Defenders? Now that is where the president's vision declines to look and admire. During his first spell in charge, Perez allowed Claude Makelele, the little guy who plugged gaps in front of the defence and who won the ball back for the superstars, to go to Chelsea.

More recently, he let defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso go to Bayern Munich. In part, it is because Perez sees only the brightest stars (and the most likely to sell replica shirts from Singapore to San Diego).

That part of the policy, balancing the books to meet at least some of the Galactico salaries, is fine as far as it goes. The Perez way of maintaining Madrid as the grandest show (he calls it the institution) is to do deals for a share of the players' commercial rights at the same time as he negotiates wages.

Its Achilles' heel is that it is unbalanced. A team of No. 9s and No. 10s will not win titles in the modern game. Even if you could soothe the egos of all the star players, opponents will soon figure out how to counter such a lopsided line-up.

The beginning of the end for Benitez was Real being humiliated by Barcelona 4-0 in the Bernabeu in November. Perez said then that Benitez was the solution, not the problem.

But Benitez was gone in January.

Perez is a president who buys players that excite him, and hires and fires coaches he expects to blend them into champions overnight. His two terms in office included sacking Vicente del Bosque in the first period and Ancelotti in the second.

Both are winners. Both are relatively quiet men who try to gain the trust and create harmony out of the gifted galaxy of players bought for them.

And both were dismissed, along with nine other coaches Senor Perez has run through in just over 12 years as president.

Finally, Perez has plunged for a playing idol to be head coach. Madrid are looking for the transition that Pep Guardiola achieved with Barcelona, and Kenny Dalglish once did at Liverpool.

It is a hard trick to pull off. The ex-player has to know how to convert what came naturally, instinctively, as part of a team into managing men and expectations.

Zidane promises to put heart and soul into the opportunity.

Perez turned to him almost like a father to a favoured son and said: "This is your club, your stadium. You will have all our support. And I know that the word impossible does not exist for you."

He knows, or he just hopes?


This article was first published on January 10, 2016.
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