Column: As Mourinho, Benitez and Van Gaal wane, Zidane is the new star coach Europe needed

As he did in scoring twice for France against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane has again popped up at just the right time, as the new coach of Real Madrid.

With Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Louis van Gaal all on downward spirals as managers, their auras waning and unadventurous styles of play increasingly outmoded and condemned, European football needed a bright new star in a suit to help keep it interesting into the next decade.

The risk for Zidane personally, of course, is that if it all goes wrong for him in the Madrid dugout, the only possible next step from managing the world's richest club will be down.

Instead of dipping his toes into his first major coaching job, Zidane is throwing himself in at the deepest of deep ends by taking the reins of the 10-time European champion, where his every move, word and team selection will be scrutinized and second-guessed under the brightest of spotlights.

That suggests a mixture of both courage and folly — traits Zidane displayed in spades as the most gifted player of his generation who repeatedly rose to big occasions but also repeatedly lost control of his vicious temper.

Under Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president now on his 11th coach in 12 years, even Zidane may not last long. Perez, one imagines, must have James Bond-style ejector seats fitted as standard in the passenger seats of his cars.

As though stricken by affluenza, never fully satisfied, Madrid's habit of chopping and changing coaches is both ugly and debilitating. Firing Benitez on Monday after only seven months looked like decision-making by whim, not well thought-out executive strategy.

Even Vicente del Bosque, who like Zidane starred as a player for Madrid before coaching it, was dismissed in 2003 after landing two Champions League triumphs and two league titles during three and a half years in charge — the longest spell of any manager at the Bernabeu in the last 20 years.

As a Madrid insider, Zidane knows all this. His gamble is that this adventure will last long enough for him to establish his credibility as a top-notch coach. How he fares in coming months, perhaps years if he is luckier than many of his predecessors, will help determine where Zidane ends up next. And that could be even more interesting than this somewhat nepotistic appointment which, having previously managed only Madrid's "B'' team, Zidane hardly merited.

Putting the former icon in charge, a player loved for his five seasons at the club, smacked of populism. It gives fans something to cheer in what could be a season barren of major trophies unless Zidane can rouse Madrid's underperforming stars with what he promised Tuesday would be an attack-minded style of play.

With short, concise answers in his first news conference as manager, and switching effortlessly between French and Spanish, Zidane otherwise gave little away in what was a characteristically reserved but smooth performance. Although he still has lots to learn about coaching, Zidane has perfected the art of football banalities. He said — no surprise — that he wants to win trophies and "do as well as I can."

Showing an ex-player's understanding of the sometimes fragile psyche of pampered modern footballers, Zidane also said he would take particular care of Gareth Bale, the hugely expensive Welsh winger whom he suggested was upset by the departure of Benitez.

"He's a fundamental player," Zidane said of Bale, whose ears must have burned red from such praise. "Phenomenal."

Zidane's advantage is that he starts with the immense credit of having won almost everything as a player: World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, Spanish and Italian leagues, the Ballon d'Or. The big egos in Madrid's dressing room won't be able to look down on him.

But former glories will only carry Zidane so far. Keeping Madrid record goal-scorer Cristiano Ronaldo happy will be key. In becoming their manager, he is putting himself at the mercy of Madrid's players and their moods. If they don't win, it will be him — not all of them — who'll be shown the door.

"The role of the coach is to get results, and it will be the same for me, despite my past," he said.

With Mourinho having burned his bridges at Chelsea, Benitez now also at a loose end, Van Gaal laboring unsteadily and unconvincingly at Manchester United and Juergen Klopp's honeymoon period at Liverpool showing signs of souring, this has been a tough few weeks for top European coaches.

But not for Pep Guardiola, somewhat alone at the top of the pile of forward-thinking, offense-minded modern managers, and so successful in Germany with Bayern Munich that he is looking for a new challenge in the English Premier League to keep him on his toes.

Guardiola, like Zidane, is in his forties. He was a star player for Barcelona before coaching its "B'' team and then taking over its first team, which he led to multiple trophies. Which is why comparisons with Zidane must end there.

Unlike Guardiola, Zidane has everything to do. He starts at the top in Madrid but with no coaching history to speak of. Sink or swim? The answer will be fascinating.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at or follow him at