Saturday 25 May 2019

Zidane departure suggests hidden rumblings at Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane quits as Real Madrid coach less than a week after leading the team to its third straight Champions League title. Photo: Borja B. Hojas/AP
Zinedine Zidane quits as Real Madrid coach less than a week after leading the team to its third straight Champions League title. Photo: Borja B. Hojas/AP

Sam Wallace

The dethroning they were awaiting in Spain was that of Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, which duly arrived on Friday, but it was the previous day, when Zinedine Zidane stepped down as manager of Real Madrid, that caught the country by surprise.

The consensus had been that even if he had not won his third straight Champions League in Kiev last Saturday that Zidane would plough on anyway, in a job that no manager wants to lose but inevitably does. "When Real Madrid come calling, you have to listen," said Mauricio Pochettino on Friday, but Zidane, a manager who has overseen stupendous success in Europe with Real, but a fading force domestically, did not seem to like the tune he was hearing.

The attempts to explain his decision in Spain suggested that a five-hour meeting about the state of the squad on Wednesday had ended with Zidane convinced he could not continue at Real, with their immense expectation, under the conditions proposed. Over in the Spanish parliament, meanwhile, there was another no-confidence vote, this time in Rajoy, and the first lost by a prime minister since Spain's modern democracy was established in 1975.

Next to Zidane at his Bernabeu adios was Florentino Perez, the 71-year-old club president who spent most of the press conference with the countenance of a man in custody awaiting legal representation. Just six days earlier, he had regally announced his delight at Cristiano Ronaldo having won his fifth career Champions League, "like myself". Since then, his club have started to disintegrate at an alarming rate and Zidane's departure suggests previously undetected fissures in the Madrid project.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. Photo: Juan Medina/Reuters
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. Photo: Juan Medina/Reuters

What is known is that Real have a €404m annual wage bill that is growing. Already €100m greater than the two Manchester clubs, it will be swollen by another round of Champions League bonuses. They have borrowed to pay it in the past and only player sales have kept them in the black in recent years.

The stadium's adjoining shopping mall, La Esquina del Bernabeu, renewed the leases of its shops last week, more evidence that the delayed €400m rebuild of the Bernabeu site is still a long way off. Recent studies of naming-rights potential for a rebuilt stadium assessed it was limited, unless the club were prepared to move to a new site at Valdebebas, near their training ground by the Barajas airport. Where is the money to come from for a fresh push in the transfer market to begin replacing the great Real sides of the past five years?

Ronaldo and Gareth Bale could both go, but the market for them is limited.

In the past, Real have staggered their payment of transfer fees, but increasingly, selling clubs are not so accommodating.

How could Perez rejuvenate Real's finances, in order to generate the kind of fees that might pay for Neymar, Harry Kane, Eden Hazard or even to extract Pochettino from his new Spurs contract? He could sell players, but the other suggestion is that he might sell part of the club, owned by their 92,000 socio members and requiring a change of legislation to allow him to make an executive decision over the heads of the members. The Bayern Munich model is attractive to Madrid, whereby the German club have a 75 per cent majority shareholding by their members, with the rest of the club owned by friendly blue-chip partners, Allianz, Audi and Adidas.

Their investment funded the new Allianz Arena. In order to create conditions to do the same at Madrid, Perez would require a political climate favourable to the club, and the no-confidence vote in Popular Party leader Rajoy means that there is anything but that in Spain now.

There is a new prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, from the Socialist party, and there will be elections by year's end. Perhaps it will return a Popular Party leadership upon which Perez might be able to rely, but there are no certainties. In the meantime, Sanchez is an Atletico fan, a former player for Estudiantes, the basketball club that has been eviscerated by the financial power of Real Madrid's basketball club - and not a man who looks a natural Perez ally.

There is no denying that on the pitch it has been an era of huge success at Real, during which Perez has hardly been in the shadows. Yet Zidane's sudden resignation is the first suggestion that keeping the show on the road has strained resources.

What lies ahead for Madrid is a fundamental question, but Pochettino would be right to assume that following a triple Champions League-winning manager is not going to be simple even before one factors in the reasons that individual left. Pochettino might even be right in assuming that there has never been a worse time to be Madrid manager.

It would seem Pochettino is prepared to let someone else have a go at following Zidane before he makes his own managerial move. For many years, with the exception of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, the identity of the manager at Real Madrid seemed less crucial to Perez than the next big signing, although that is another aspect of the club that seems to be changing in this new era.

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