Zinedine Zidane’s final news conference as Real Madrid coach was handled with the same serenity and conviction he has shown throughout his time in charge, with the Frenchman leaving the job having achieved the pretty remarkable feat of keeping on the right side of just about everyone at the Bernabeu during his two and a half years in the job.
Everyone caught off guard
With Madrid’s players all either off on holidays or preparing for the World Cup, nobody expected a busy Thursday around the club’s Valdebebas training ground until an email dropped at 11:40 a.m. local time announcing that Zidane was to give a totally unexpected news conference just 80 minutes later.
Unlike many previous occasions at Valdebebas, the press pack were not kept waiting too long. The door at the press centre opened just 10 minutes after the appointed time and club president Florentino Perez and Zidane walked out to sit down at the podium as the photographers jostled for position in front.
Perez was dressed as always in his trademark dark suit, grey shirt and blue tie. But Zidane had ditched his club-issued clothes for a blue suit and darker roll-neck. The club president looked more edgy as they took their seats, with Zidane clearly the more relaxed.
Straight and to the point
Once Perez began to speak, all doubt over what was happening was dispelled. “As president I am here with Zidane, but it should be him who communicates this unexpected decision and explain his reasons for taking it. I am just at his side.”
Zidane then took over and quickly got straight to the point, delivering a clear explanation of why he had taken the decision to leave, with his tone seeming even and full of conviction.
“I’ve taken the decision not to continue as Real Madrid coach for next season,” he said. “Some people might think that it’s strange, but it’s my decision. I think this team needs to keep winning, but I think after three years a change is needed. Something different, a different message and different ways of going about it, and that’s why I decided to take this decision.
“It’s a club I love. I love the president too, I will always be grateful to him for bringing me to this club. But I think today a change is needed, so I won’t be here next season.”
The essential message did not change through the 25-minute news conference, either, with Zidane handling all questions while speaking confidently and openly, as he has done almost every time he faced the press during his time at the helm of Los Blancos.
The biggest takeaway for Zidane was wanting to make sure everyone understood that he was making this decision himself, that he realised lots of people would not agree (“Many people might think this strange”) but that it was very important to him to go out on his own terms, at the moment he chose himself.
“This is my decision — maybe I am mistaken, but after three years I see this as the moment,” he said. “If I do not see clearly that we are going to continue winning, a moment comes when you say better to step aside.”
When Zidane took over as Madrid coach back in January 2016, it took him a while to get used to dealing with the Bernabeu press pack, but he quickly learned how to control the room. Reporters who tried to suggest his decision was motivated by other factors, such as not wanting to have to tell players they would have to leave, or deal with Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest tantrums, were given steely looks and very short answers.
The departing coach also had no intention of talking about the challenges facing his successor or give any hints about his own next job. Yet most questions were given straight, honest answers, with Zidane clearly wanting to get his own feelings across as well as he could.
There was a nice moment when Martin Ainstein of ESPN Deportes used his question to say how impressive Zidane’s composure had been during his time in charge. The Frenchman was clearly happy he had made that impression and added an insight into his personality by saying that to stay on would have been, for him personally, an abdication of responsibility.
“First of all thanks very much for saying that,” he replied. “I wanted to communicate serenity, hard work, commitment … what this club has. I had the respect of all, above all the players, which has been fundamental in achieving things. The players have nothing to do with my decision, it is about what I think. As a player, if I was not happy as I was not winning, I left myself, did not blame other people, took a decision and that’s that.”
By leaving so soon after such a happy moment for Real Madrid, Zidane has also ensured he keeps alive his relationship with everyone at the club. And there were words of thanks for everyone, from the Bernabeu fans to the Valdebebas facility staff to the big Bernabeu boss himself.
“It is a difficult moment as I am saying I am leaving, but it is not a sad day for me,” he said. “It is just an ‘until soon.’ I will always be close to this club. I know many people here, and my relationship with everyone, including the president, will not change.”
The final question about whether he might have stayed in the job had Madrid lost last weekend’s Champions League final to Liverpool was met with a smile and a “maybe.” The reporters present then got to their feet for a round of applause as the departing coach followed Perez back out through the door.
Whether Zidane returns to work for the club in the future remains to be seen. Unlike many former heroes, from Alfredo Di Stefano to Iker Casillas who have left the Bernabeu on bad terms, Zidane has chosen his own moment to leave. And the way he controlled his departure was as impressive as everything else he did during his short but historic time as Real Madrid coach.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan