Dubai: The great travel writer Bill Bryson once said there are three things you just can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.
Football coach Zinedine Zidane obviously doesn’t read travel books because if he did he’d no doubt get a little further down the road in life than his latest assignment, and would probably heed some of Bryson’s advice.
After just 284 days away last week, the Frenchman finds himself back at Real Madrid with whom he won six titles as a player between 2001 and 2006, and nine as a coach between 2016 and 2018, including an unprecedented three Champions League titles in a row.
A look at any of history’s second comings — in football or otherwise — however would tell you they are not nearly as triumphant nor as long-lasting, chiefly because things change in the interim.
Zidane may still have the majority of those he worked with under his control, but it’s minus one significant other — Cristiano Ronaldo — the club’s former star striker now at Juventus, who left Real last summer after Zidane resigned at the end of last season.
The coach distanced himself from emotion and correctly gauged the coming of an end to an era, pre-empting players ageing and moving on. He then got out at just the right time before any decline could be associated with his leadership.
This was perfect-timing, and astute judgement, but then he allowed feelings to creep back into a decision, proving that even the mighty can’t escape the very human condition that lures us towards failure despite it feeling so good.
Without the Portuguese striker it seems impossible to pick up from where Zidane had left of, especially as they have now fallen so far in terms of confidence while playing under the likes of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari since Zizou has been away.
Even if Ronaldo were to return, the old momentums wouldn’t be there, making Zidane’s knight in shining armour ride back into the Spanish capital inevitably the only highlight of what is about to unfold.
Bar that initial hit of familiarity and adulation, he’s now actually got to stage the turnaround that everyone expects of him, despite starting from a low from which he has no muscle memory of, armed only with the warmth of better days that have since gone.
Failing at another club would have been quite less painful, but to do it here where there’s now love and feelings involved will be even more heart-breaking for all concerned.
True, no one was expecting Zidane to lead Real to three consecutive Champions League titles in his first senior managerial role, and if anyone can lead the club back to such heights it’s surely him, but this seems an ask too far even for someone of his genius. Not only has he set the benchmark too high for others, but he has also made the fatal mistake of setting it too high for himself.
Life, by it’s very notion of being a journey, just doesn’t allow for a retreat to your old comfort zones, and if it did so many more would have prospered from that old career faux pas of regression.
For someone famed for getting sent off for head-butting his opponent in a World Cup final and ultimately losing his side that match however, it’s clear Zidane is much less a man of logic and more of impulse. And while we put these super humans up on pedestals, it’s often heartening to see they are just as scared of the unknown, unable to move forward and as affected by torment, as we are.
He had the choice of managing any club in the world after resigning from Real, citing the need for change at the end of last season. The likes of Manchester United and Juventus were both in hot pursuit, and he could have even regrouped with the likes of Ronaldo at Juventus, for guaranteed success in Italy at another of his old stomping grounds, where he has previously played but hasn’t yet managed.
Such was the shine around what he had just achieved, he could have even taken a little while longer out to weigh up his options. But that shine risks being tarnished now, as anything he achieves in his second spell with the club will fail to live up to the near perfection of what he managed last time.
Even through following football coaches and our living lives through others, we are all guilty of holding on to something that has passed and longing for what’s been, but real progression is in taking risks and pushing our bounds of familiarity. It’s quite a shock then to see someone so successful and respected retreat back into what he knows instead of chancing the hand he had in front of him. As Bryson found out it’s often the idea of journeying home to your youth that is more appetising than the reality.