KIEV. — He was one of the all-time greats as a player, and Zinedine Zidane now merits consideration as one of the game’s great managers after making history with Real Madrid in Saturday night’s Champions League soccer final. His team’s 3-1 win over Liverpool on a dramatic evening in Kiev allowed Zidane to become the first coach ever to win the Champions League in three consecutive seasons, with Real becoming the first team to achieve that feat in more than 40 years.
Less than two and a half years after being promoted from his position as coach of Real’s second team to his first managerial role at the highest level, the Frenchman has become only the third coach in the history of the game to lift the European Cup three times.
Leaving behind contemporaries Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, Zidane has equalled former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti, the man he used to serve as an assistant.
“I need to congratulate the players as it is not at all easy what they are doing,” Zidane said after the game in the Ukrainian capital.
“This is the business. There are no words for it. That is what this squad is all about. They have no limit to what they can do.”
Zidane was reluctant to take too much of the credit after seeing his side secure their fourth Champions League title in five seasons, and the 13th in the club’s long love affair with the European Cup.
The 45-year-old also won the trophy as a player for Real, his volley in the 2002 win over Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow being considered one of the best ever to grace a final — although it was possibly surpassed by Gareth Bale’s overhead kick on Saturday.
It is 20 years since the Marseille-born son of Algerian immigrants scored twice as France beat Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 World Cup final.
Two years later his midfield artistry inspired France to victory at the European Championship, and on the eve of Saturday’s game Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp called him “one of the best five players of all time.”
Yet as a coach, he has now won nine trophies since replacing Rafael Benitez in the Santiago Bernabeu dugout in January 2016.
It is a remarkable record, all the more so for a man who has not yet convinced everyone that he is a tactical genius.
“What I am doing is just a continuation — I have just started as a coach, what I am experiencing with my players is impressive,” he said.
“There is no secret. It is just a lot of work. We have players who are very good, but behind that there is lots of hard work. They have the desire, the hunger to win.”
Having such a talented squad certainly helps. Zidane has also had a fair amount of luck on his side, with Liverpool’s night being marred by the first-half injury to Mohamed Salah that forced off their best player.
Two goalkeeping errors by Loris Karius helped too, just as a howler by Bayern Munich’s Sven Ulreich had been vital in the semi-finals.
Nevertheless, guiding Real to the longest period of sustained success in Europe’s elite club competition since the 1970s means, statistically at least, his place in the pantheon of great coaches is secure.
The question is, where does he go from here?
Zidane recently insisted that winning La Liga is harder than anything else, but his Real side finished well behind Barcelona in third place in the season just finished.
As long as he has the motivation to carry on in his current role — possibly outlasting the ageing Cristiano Ronaldo and building a new team — he will try to wrestle back the domestic title from Barcelona.
“We are not going to settle now for anything. You know that at the start of the season we always want to win everything.” — AFP