Back in in 2013 I was in Doha interviewing Roberto Olabe, the Spanish coach in charge of football development at Qatar’s Aspire Academy.
He was an interesting if rather intense guy, but my brief was to go into detail about his job and ask him about his views on the controversial 2022 World Cup etc. He obliged, and gave me plenty of material for the sort of old-fashioned in-depth piece I was planning.
When we finished he suddenly said ‘Do you want to talk to Raul?’ – which I hadn’t been expecting at all. Raul Gonzalez, Madrid legend and demi-god, was playing for Al Sadd at the time, but combined his playing role with ‘ambassadorial duties’ and a certain advisory capacity in Olabe’s team.
‘No, no’ – I replied, ‘I wouldn’t want to bother him’, at which point Olabe gestured towards an open office door, some three metres away. I hadn’t noticed, but the door was ajar and the great man was indeed sitting there, his beaky nose jutting out in profile as he stared intently at his laptop, dressed in a natty purple ‘Aspire’ tracksuit.
It was one of those awkward life moments when you’re faced with a sudden fifty-fifty choice, one of which is comfortable (leave politely) and the other potentially difficult (you’ve prepared nothing).
I chose the former, my gut instinct telling me that although the selfie for the kids would be cool, the spontaneous interview would be likely to yield very little. Besides, there was always something about Raul that made me slightly wary. And it seems I’m not the only one.
All of which takes us to the elegant Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid this week. Bernabeu-watchers will have been interested by Zinedine Zidane’s rather odd recent press conference, in which he refused to confirm that he would be coaching the team next season.
These subliminal messages from the White House always require interpretation, since the dramatis personae who tread its boards are usually under contractual orders not to speak their minds.
Consequently, various theories have arisen. One is that Florentino Perez is losing confidence in the Frenchman, and has sent him a series of indirect messages, via the press of course.
The other is that like Luis Enrique, Zidane is tiring of the circus, even though he’s been lion-taming for a shorter period of time than his Barcelona counterpart.
The third one – and hence the introduction to this article, is that Zidane is unhappy with the return of the wandering king, Raul, to the Madrid workforce next season.
Like the protagonists of the world’s three great religions, Raul required a certain time in the wilderness to contemplate, reflect and learn before returning home to change the world.
Now he’s back as Florentino Perez’s ‘asesor personal’ (personal adviser), the same job handed briefly to Zidane before he eventually took over the reins of the first team. It’s rather unclear exactly what this job constitutes.
Is ‘whispering in the president’s ear’ a valid job description? Whatever it involves, the hot gossip suggests that Zidane is unhappy at the return of Raul, his ex-team-mate, arch manipulator of the press and of the whole madridista paradigm, of which he naturally considers himself the supreme incarnation.
Zidane is many things, but he isn’t stupid. He knows that Raul questioned his elevation to coach status from abroad, saying that he was ‘surprised’ by Zidane’s appointment, and he also knows that in the end, he cannot compete with Raul in the eyes of the club’s hard-core.
Zidane is a hero, but everything is relative. Raul wants the job eventually, and is undergoing his FIFA Coaching licence. Meanwhile, he will sit at Perez’s right hand and pass judgement.
The mention of Roberto Olabe in this context is therefore significant. Olabe returned from Qatar last year to take up the job of Director of Football at Real Sociedad, a post already filled by the unpopular but seemingly permanent resident of the post, Loren.
Last month Olabe resigned in silence, clearly miffed that with Loren still in post, he was unable to ‘direct’. He said nothing on resigning, but it was clear why he went. Loren refused to budge, and had the ear of the president. Too many chiefs? It would seem so – but in the Bernabeu the problem goes deeper.
What exactly is the problem? Well – if you’d watched the Spanish coverage of the Madrid derby on Saturday, then you’d have seen how the general idea that Zidane is a nice guy but a poor tactician is beginning to plague him, whether it’s a conspiracy theory or not.
It all revolved around the 75th minute, with the Spanish commentators speculating about which substitutions Zidane should make, given the fact that Real Madrid appeared to be in cruise mode, only 1-0 up but nevertheless in control.
‘I’d take off Bale and put on Isco’ said one. The other agreed, adding ‘Or maybe take off Modric. He’s playing fine, but he could get some rest for Wednesday in Munich’.
There was some slightly acidic comment about the fact that Marco Asensio wasn’t even on the bench, but when a minute later Zidane took off Toni Kroos, both commentators went into convulsions.
I just remembered that Zidane did the same mistake in UCL final by taking Kroos off, minutes later Atletico scored. Does he even learn? smh— Yassine (@YassineSays) April 8, 2017
It was an unusual moment in Spanish television history, but what followed was unfortunately for Zidane an endorsement of their surprise. Kroos was doing fine, and orchestrating the play. You could see the possible point of the change – Isco guarantees you more possession – but he doesn’t ‘marcar pautas’ as the Spanish say (set the rhythm).
Besides, Bale was anonymous and it was surely he who was crying out to be substituted by Isco. Why Kroos? Is Zidane too enamoured of the BBC? Possibly. Or he may be under orders. Fake news? You decide!
Whatever the truth, Diego Simeone reacted smartly by taking off Fernando Torres and introducing the muscular Thomas, beefing up the middle and releasing Antoine Griezmann into a more forward role. Real Madrid began to waver, and the rest is history.
Barcelona then obliged by losing unexpectedly at Malaga (2-0), but the damage was done. When Griezmann scored in the 86th minute, the ground fell silent in a sort of funereal shock, as if everything was suddenly clear.
Another season, another late collapse. It was as if the press had been building up to this moment for several weeks, quietly beginning to question the legend – to sow the seeds of doubt. It’s been done many times before, and Zidane will have noticed the runes.
Sergio Ramos felt it necessary to defend him on Sunday, saying that he was happy with the way Zidane has calmed the team’s egos and built up a great dressing-room atmosphere – yet it smacked of desperation.
Sergio Ramos: "We are nobody to talk about Zidane's future. We are happy with him. He has numbers & a presence in our dressing room."— Richard Kwaku Yeboah (@rickytorres991) April 9, 2017
Zidane is slightly enigmatic, good at deflecting tension and supplying cleverly non-committal answers to the occasional darts thrown at him in press conferences, but like all those before him, it is not proving enough.
He’s beginning to annoy people, differently to how Luis Enrique annoys people through confrontation, but Zidane’s more passive aggression is there nonetheless.
It makes you wonder just what coaches have to do these days to succeed, but the Bernabeu is a very special hot-seat – a seat to which Pérez has invited Raul to be closer to, despite the juicy revelations in the book written by Jose Antonio Abellán.
In it, Perez allegedly said of Raul, ‘You don’t know how bad this guy is. He’s the worst. He’ll destroy Madrid’. He’s either had a change of heart, or Perez is not as powerful as he would seem to be.
In the end, the next few weeks will determine Zidane’s future. Bayern Munich represents a potential nightmare, and despite Barcelona’s Malaga mess, the clásico still gives them the chance to pip Madrid at the post.
Ironically, the tabloid ‘Marca’ led with a picture of Michel, Malaga’s coach, under the header ‘Michel puts the league title on a tray’, re-awakening the old wish of some of the hard-core to re-install Michel – the local dream boy who was supposedly destined to return as Madrid’s own Pep Guardiola.
Well it’s not going to happen, but meanwhile, Zidane’s press conference has introduced an unexpected element to the end of this very interesting season.
Real Madrid’s starting XI more or less picks itself, and the identity of the players selected by Zinedine Zidane for Saturday’s Madrid derby against Atletico came as no surprise whatsoever.
But there’s a growing sense that the long-established hierarchy of stars at the Bernabeu is under heavy pressure for the first time in years, and Zidane would be well advised to consider freshening things up for the remainder of the season – starting with Wednesday’s mouth-watering Champions League tie with Bayern Munich.
In particular, Gareth Bale does not look worthy of a place in the starting line-up at the moment, continuing a decidedly underwhelming run of form with a tepid performance against Atletico.
Let’s not exaggerate – the Welshman was by no means terrible, working hard both with and without the ball and having the right attitude. During his four seasons in Spain, Bale has shown enough attributes to prove that he possesses more than enough quality to excel at the highest level, and at 27 he still should have a few more years as a key player for Los Blancos.
But it just wasn’t happening for him on Saturday, and the only surprise about Zidane’s decision to replace him with Lucas Vazquez was that it took him until the 81st minute, by which time Madrid were well and truly on the back foot and Vazquez had little opportunity to exert an impact.
This has been a tough season physically for Bale, whose long summer with Wales has been followed by a series of niggling injuries, restricting him to just 16 starts in La Liga and preventing him from finding his rhythm.
Zidane: "My future? You'd have to ask those above me about that. I train every day, with dedication, strength and excitement."— Real Madrid Info (@RMadridInfo) April 8, 2017
Those extenuating circumstances no doubt explain why Bale is currently below his best, and while he’s not performing at his optimum level he quite simply should not be in the team. That is especially the case because Zidane is blessed with a wide array of outstanding options. Isco, in particular, was unfortunate not to start after a batch of excellent performances for both club and country.
There’s also James Rodriguez, who has played well enough to deserve far more than the eight league starts he has been granted by Zidane. Vazquez is a different kind of player, with his directness and tenacity always troubling opposition defences, while young Marco Asensio has all the ability to become a major superstar.
All four of those players are good enough to seriously challenge the assumption that Bale is an unquestioned starter whenever he is fit, and they are also flexible enough to allow Zidane to employ the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations he has alternated between this season.
To an extent, the same is true of Karim Benzema, who has been outscored in La Liga this season by back-up Alvaro Morata – the Spaniard has netted 11 goals to Benzema’s nine, despite playing 600 minutes fewer, and Zidane would be fully justified in starting Morata in Munich. It’s a similar story in midfield, where Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have been below their best in recent weeks, with Isco, James and Mateo Kovacic all waiting impatiently in the wings.
In fairness to Zidane, he does regularly rotate his squad and ensures that every player gets a decent amount of playing time.
But when the big games roll around, he becomes conservative and reverts to his template line-up.
That needn’t be the case, and there is every reason for the ‘Gala XI’ to be shaken up with a new face or two – starting in Munich on Wednesday.
La Liga Table after today's matches: pic.twitter.com/EmcnIoQIi2— Real Madrid Info (@RMadridInfo) April 8, 2017
It was their final extensive session ahead of the all-important Madrid derby against Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Among the players in action at Valdebebas were Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema as coach Zinedine Zidane pondered team selection ahead of the massive clash at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Watch the video above to find out what Los Blancos have been getting up to in training.
Do you think Real will beat Diego Simeone’s men on Saturday?