The world looked a bleak place for Zinedine Zidane an hour into Real Madrid’s encounter with Barcelona seven weeks ago at the Camp Nou. Trailing by a goal to nil, his team were momentarily 13 points adrift of Barça in the league. Results under his reign, having replaced the unpopular Rafa Benítez in January, were indifferent. He’d lost the city derby at home 1-0 to Atlético Madrid in February.
In press conferences, Zidane looked unconvincing, stumbling in faltering Spanish when he got nervous. In the background, moves were afoot to have him replaced, as the club’s president, Florentino Pérez, was known to be keen on bringing back José Mourinho as manager during the summer.
Despite his stature as a club legend, notably for the sublime volley he scored to win the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park, it was a mystery why Zidane got the job. He was the youngest appointment in 20 years to the post, and was installed without experience of managing at the highest level. As coach of Real Madrid’s reserve team, he had an unsatisfactory 46 per cent win rate, and declined to speak at a press conference in his first year in charge. What a difference a couple of goals can make though. Real Madrid, playing with only ten men – after Sergio Ramos was sent off – stole the clásico in early April with late strikes from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo to win 2-1.
Ten days later, a Ronaldo hat-trick helped to overturn a 2-0, first-leg deficit in the Champions League quarter-final; in the league, a 12-match winning streak took them to within a point of Barça at the top of the table.
The turnaround has won Zidane plaudits in the Spanish press, particularly for having the cojones to drop one of the president’s galáctico signings, James Rodríguez, in favour of the Brazilian holding midfielder, Casemiro, which has brought more balance to the team in the same way Claude Makélélé used to bale water for Real Madrid’s attack-heavy team during Zidane’s days as a player.
The only thing stopping Zidane from crowning the season by bringing Real Madrid an 11th Champions League title – and ensuring he’ll hold on to his job for next season – is Diego “El Cholo” Simeone. The Argentine has been a revelation since taking over at Atlético Madrid in December 2011. The club was in a mess, mired in over half a billion euros of debt. It languished four points adrift of the relegation zone in the league.
The Uruguayan international Diego Godín, who marshals the team’s central defence, filed a claim for unpaid wages. It had been averaging 14 new players a season for over a decade. Simeone was the 49th manager to be appointed – Big Ron Atkinson among them – since 1987.
Not that it fazed Simeone. He arrived like a man possessed. He said that “energy” was pumping through him on the flight from Argentina. He was returning to the club he knew he would manage one day, having captained Atlético to a historic league-and-cup double in 1996, scoring the winning goal in the game that clinched the league title.
There were small amendments made – the colour of the nets at the stadium was changed, for example, from black to match the club’s red-and-white strip. And there were big ones. He worked most on the players’ minds, who, according to their captain, Gabi, were “mentally sunk” until Simeone started invading their thoughts. He likes to give his one-on-one pep talks on the night before matches just before a player goes to bed because he reckons it’s the best time for his messages to sink in.
He doesn’t rest. During his playing days with Atlético, his old team-mate, Kiko Narvaez, remembers Simeone refusing to let team-mates have a siesta before a game – he was at a loss to know why they’d want to take a nap.
He still plays out matches while manager as if he was on the field, straining at the edge of the technical area like a guard dog on a leash, heading imaginary balls, his foot kicking out involuntarily, his arms gesturing towards where the ball should travel. In the final, fraught moments of the second-leg Champions League semi-final clash against Bayern Munich earlier this month, he was caught on camera striking one of his assistants on the touchline for failing to get a substitution approved quickly enough.
He majors on siege mentality – a popular trope with Mourinho, a manager he admires – for his battle cries. He talks always about the need to be authentic and the importance of “belonging”, which feeds the impressive manner he has broken up the Barça-Real Madrid duopoly in Spanish football despite operating with a third of their budgets.
That embattled, tribal feeling will come easily for him, of course, in his team speech before the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Milan next Saturday. He will look to correct a defeat to them in the final two years ago, following an agonising injury-time equaliser by Ramos that precipitated a 4-1 rout.
If Simeone – who has lost only once in ten matches against Real Madrid since that night in Lisbon – can engineer a win this time against Zidane, an old adversary from their days playing in the Serie A and La Liga, it would trigger elephantine celebrations for the club, surpassing even the scenes after its “double” in 1996 when its late owner Jesús Gil paraded through the streets of Madrid on an elephant.