The legend behind the legend: How Zidane expertly managed Ronaldo
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 12 World Fame 100 Issue. Subscribe today!
ZINEDINE ZIDANE NEEDS to have a quiet word, which is the way he has most words. It is late summer 2016 at Valdebebas, Real Madrid's state-of-the-art HQ northeast of Spain's capital, and it is hot outside. In the foreground, dominating the skyline, stand the four skyscrapers constructed a decade ago on the site of Madrid's old training ground. Easily the tallest buildings in the country, they are nicknamed for the original galácticos, the most glamorous collection of footballers ever brought together in a single side: Luis Figo, Ronaldo Nazario, David Beckham and Zidane.
All of them played for Madrid in the 2000s; now one of them, unexpectedly, is coach. Zidane: World Cup winner, European champion, Champions League winner with Real Madrid and holder of the Ballon d'Or, the coveted prize for the world's best player. One of the all-time greats.
In January 2016, Zidane had taken over a team of malcontent superstars with a conservative style of play and a disappointing third-place standing in La Liga. Five months later, Zidane's squad won the Champions League. Now, as he looks out over the skyline on this August day, Zidane has two obvious goals: repeat in the Champions League and reclaim the La Liga crown from Leo Messi's Barcelona. But first he has to do the completely unexpected by changing the way this generation's greatest galáctico, Cristiano Ronaldo, approaches the game.
In a few days, Ronaldo will miss the season's start, recovering from a knee injury sustained just minutes into the Euro 2016 final. At 31, he has seemingly reached the pinnacle of an astonishing career -- international success. Yet, facing his footballing mortality, his best season had also been one of his worst. He has much to celebrate, European champion for club and country, but also issues to address. His future, especially. Whether he has much of one.
Zidane seeks him out. If you listen to me, the coach says softly, you'll reach the end of the season in better shape than ever before -- and you'll prolong your career.
WHEN ZIDANE TALKS, people pay attention. Maybe it's precisely because he doesn't say much. That's his personality, although get him alone and he is surprisingly engaging. His status as one of the true greats of the modern game doesn't hurt either. Very, very few people have played at the level of Madrid's players, can talk to them as equals. Zidane can.
Real Madrid is not just Ronaldo; this is an absurdly talented squad, every player an international, six of them appearing in our World Fame 100. Men who needn't take many orders; men with few superiors. Why should Ronaldo, or any of them, listen?
Because Zidane is one of them. He is not their superior but their equal. Zidane's last words before every game are "enjoy it." Before last season's Champions League final, when everyone was talking about the pressure and the tension, Zidane said: "I wish I could play."
Some of Madrid's players sarcastically referred to Rafa Benitez, their previous coach, as El Diez (the No. 10, the team's best player). He was a renowned coach, but he had never played, and for some of them -- proud, protective, sensitive -- that matters.
With Zidane, they got a real No. 10. Benitez tried to tell Ronaldo, a Ballon d'Or winner over a decade into his career, how to strike a ball, which way to stand when he took free kicks. All Ronaldo gave in return was coldness, bemusement, a touch of resentment. Zidane took free kicks with him instead, a training ground challenge. Twenty yards from goal, a line of balls, an inflatable defensive wall, a goalkeeper there to stop them. Zidane won.
His success as a leader wasn't a given. Plenty of former greats have tried managing, with varied results. "No one could see him being a coach, none of us," former Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa says. "And now look at him." During one lunch before he got the job, Madrid's president debated with his CEO about whose responsibility it would be to sack Zidane when the time came, as they were sure it would.
The media said he was too introverted, too inexperienced, not a tactical genius like Pep Guardiola or a defensive mastermind like Diego Simeone. Even after he orchestrated Madrid's stunning turnaround in his first season, they said he just got lucky. It's easy to win when you have the best players in the world.
IN MAY 2016, a few weeks before Ronaldo scored the decisive penalty to win Real Madrid's record 11th Champions League title, Zidane was asked whether he would like his star to rest more. Ronaldo had been chasing a record that season, trying to play every single minute. It was damaging, but it drove him. "Yes," Zidane said softly. He didn't say anything else; he didn't need to.
Zidane prepared a training regimen for Ronaldo, then spoke to him. The Portuguese star had reached the end of the previous three or four seasons exhausted. Zidane pointed this out. He told him that rest was vital, not just to reach the end of the season in better shape but to reach the season after it and the season after that. He told Ronaldo to forget the Pichichi award for top scorer -- an obsession he'd won three times in six seasons -- to worry less about the number of goals, more about which goals.
Some players have to be persuaded to do more; Ronaldo has to be persuaded to do less. One member of the coaching staff recalls "a game where we came back at 3 in the morning and he went down and had an ice bath. When we came back from Istanbul at 6 a.m., there's the physio giving him a rubdown." Zidane saw the work; he wanted to rationalize it. He appealed to Ronaldo's desire to make history. It is because you matter, because we need you, he told him, that I want you to not play sometimes. It's good for you.
Did Ronaldo want another European final in which his influence was minimal? Of course not, but it is a dangerous discourse. Telling a player to take a step back is not an easy path; when Ronaldo was taken off in Las Palmas earlier this season, he was unhappy. "He has to rest sometime," Zidane said publicly, echoing what he had told Ronaldo privately months before. Zidane spoke; Ronaldo listened. He offered the advice with affection, empathy and experience. He had felt his own faculties diminish over the final years of his career, the fatigue eat at his mind and muscles. Seeing that, he had rested and prepared to be the best player at the 2006 World Cup, at age 34. Now he was passing that down.
"I have made a radical change this year," Ronaldo says. "In the last four, five seasons, I have always got to the end pushing the limits; this year I have prepared for these final couple of months."
So they agreed -- a pact, not an imposition. Four times in six weeks this spring Ronaldo was left out away from home. Left out entirely, not just made a sub. If he sits on the bench, he doesn't like it, Zidane's technical staff concluded. He will be tense, anxious, his mood still dictated by the game, the center of his day. Better that he doesn't go at all: no plane, no hotel, no team talks, no stress, no stadium, a total break. And then on Monday, he races his way through training.
Zidane remembers; he hated hotels. "I couldn't take it anymore. All day locked in your room up to a game ... oof! In the end, it tired me out. Football is wonderful and I'm not complaining, but it's hard. So I went. You miss the adrenaline of playing. You'll always miss that but not the rest of it. You tire of it."
Ronaldo saw that Zidane understood. As time went by, everything he had been told came true. In the summer, Zidane asked him to give up some of what had made him who he was, to choose quality over quantity, to defer gratification, to resist that relentless pursuit of goals and records for something more meaningful. It will be worth it, Zidane said, to reach the season's climax in his best shape. And because his manager got it, Ronaldo got it too. Between them, they delivered on a promise.
In the spring, Ronaldo scored eight goals in four games to take Real Madrid to the Champions League final, against Juventus on June 3 in Cardiff, Wales. Zidane and Ronaldo are just 90 minutes from making Real Madrid the first club to successfully defend the Champions League trophy.
A historic achievement, even among galácticos.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.