He walks away from the biggest job in world football and the opportunity to become the first manager to win four straight European Cups. And he does it less than four days after leading Real Madrid to their third consecutive Champions League crown.
He used the word “desgaste” — the same choice of terms used by Pep Guardiola when he left the Camp Nou six years ago — and it has a specific meaning. “Worn out, out of gas.” And yet he also said he wasn’t tired: “I’ve been doing this for three years, I’m certainly not out of energy.”
The great French stone face was once again inscrutably Sphinx-like.
He echoed the old football maxim whereby if you want to keep winning over time, every few years you either need to change the players or the coach.
“The time is right,” he said. “It’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly. I thought about it carefully and it’s the right decision, even though I imagine many may not agree. After three years Real Madrid needs a change, another way of working, another idea, if we are to continue winning. I feel it’s going to be difficult to continue winning. And because I’m a winner, I’m going.”
Do we take this at face value? Is he leaving because he knows that victory in Kiev can’t paper over a season that saw Real finish 17 points out of first place in La Liga, and in the Champions League, get outplayed for long stretches by Tottenham, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern?
Maybe. But even then, the enormity of walking away while on the verge of further cementing his place in football immortality is staggering — particularly since this is a team that is built to win here and now.
The average age of the starting XI is 29, most of the regulars are locked in through 2021 or beyond and most are on the sort of wages that make them difficult to sell. But perhaps that’s not how Real Madrid president Florentino Perez saw it. Perhaps after three summers in which not a single starter was added — the last two, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas, arrived in 2014 — the plan for 2018 was to blow up the team and rebuild.
Maybe the post-match statements from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale — with both men talking, albeit in different circumstances, about hypothetically moving on — weren’t entirely coincidental. Maybe they knew this would be the summer of upheaval and they wanted to test the waters early. And maybe Zidane simply did not want to be part of a rebuild. It’s a theory, and a popular one. Whether it corresponds to fact will likely be revealed in the coming weeks.