190312 Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane Image Credit: Reuters

Madrid: Zinedine Zidane knew as soon as the name flashed up on his phone. Late last week, after Real Madrid crashed out of the Champions League to Ajax and saw painful defeats to Barcelona end their hopes in both La Liga and the Copa del Rey, Florentino Perez, the club’s president, called the man he regards as “the best coach in the world.” He asked him to come back.

“And here I am,” Zidane said.

Just 284 days after he left Madrid — after three Champions League titles in three years — after claiming that both he and the club needed a “change”, Zidane walked back into the media suite at the Santiago Bernabeu flanked by his wife, Veronique, Perez, and a phalanx of Real legends.

After just two phone conversations with Perez, Zidane agreed to take charge of Real until the summer of 2022. His love for the club he had graced as both a player and a coach, he said, was too great for him to resist. “I could not say no,” he said. “I am here because the president called me.”

If Perez had known it was that simple, he might have moved to get in touch sooner. Zidane lives in Madrid, he has witnessed, first-hand, the “difficult” season his team has endured, first under Julen Lopetegui — poached from the Spanish national team on the eve of the World Cup in June, fired before Halloween — and then his replacement, the former youth team coach Santiago Solari. “I was watching my players, and I was not happy about how things were,” said Perez.

Madrid sit third in La Liga, behind not only Barcelona but also their city rivals Atletico. They are out of the Copa del Rey and, most damaging of all, they were eliminated by Ajax in the last 16 of the Champions League last week, losing the second leg of the tie 4-1 at home. “We are going through a difficult and complicated moment,” Perez said. “We know what pain that brings the fans.”

Little wonder, then, that Zidane — just as he did when he left Madrid, five days after lifting the third of those Champions Leagues — took to the rostrum once again speaking of the need for change. “This club is what had to and has to change,” he said. “Things have to change, in every way. We have to change for next season.”