The most followed, loved, financed and broadcasted sport on Planet Earth is, without any doubt, football. By football I mean European football or soccer. My introduction to soccer was in the 8th grade. The year was 2013. I distinctly remember the first match that I watched. It was the second leg of the Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund. That valiant attempt to make a historic comeback from the first leg by Real Madrid hooked me up perfectly to the beautiful sport and Real Madrid as a club. From that day on, I became an ardent follower of this Spanish football club and have been watching all the events, changes, lows and highs very closely. Right in the next season, Real Madrid changed its coach from José Mourinho to Carlo Ancelotti. The change of coach to Carlo Ancelotti by club president Florentino Perez proved to be one of his best ever decisions. Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival inspired Real Madrid to winning the coveted La Decima (the tenth European championship) and the Spanish cup. In this blog I wish to describe Real Madrid’s journey to their 11th European Cup also famously known as La Undecima.
Europe is the host to some of the best football leagues in the world. The Barclays Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga etc. have consistently produced world-class players for the past few decades. Right from Alfredo di Stefano and Michael Platini to Zinadine Zidane, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. All teams play in their respective domestic leagues. Each domestic league also has a domestic cup. Finally, the top teams compete in the Champions League. The Champions League is regarded as the highest honor in club football.
Real Madrid is a premier Spanish club founded in 1902. More popularly known as Real, the club boasts a star studded player list including Alfredo Di Stefano, David Beckham, Zinadine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo among others. The glorious Ancelotti era, which was laden with trophies, created an atmosphere of very high expectations for Real Madrid. The season 2014-2015 was a trophy-less season for Real Madrid even though they played some of the best football. This season was followed, by the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti. Many of the stars in the Real Madrid squad were unhappy with this decision. Rafa Benitez was appointed as the new head coach. Rafa was not exactly a popular choice with the fans or the players. The fans in Madrid are very vocal of their opinions about a new appointment. This mounted on the already prevalent pressure on Rafa Benitez of managing the richest club in the world. Rafa Benitez’s season got off to a rough start as Real Madrid was held to goal less draw by a lowly side like Sporting Gijon. The pressure went on building as the team did not deliver the same quality of football as they did under Ancelotti. Rafa Benitez then started making huge blunders. He started picking his starting 11 based on the popularity of players. The team consequently lost all its balance. This peaked in the 4-0 demolition at the hands of Barcelona at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid slipped to third in the league table and were trailing Barcelona by a huge margin. Florentino Perez, the club president, again did what he does best. He made a harsh decision. He sacked Rafa Benitez and decided to promote French football legend Zinedine Zidane as the head coach of the senior team. Before that Zidane was coaching the junior team of Real Madrid.
Zidane and Perez have a very long history and have immense faith in each other. Florentino Perez had bought Zidane from Juventus at a world record transfer fee. Zidane went on to officially say that Perez was like a second father to him. From the moment Zidane took over, Real Madrid looked like a completely different team. The players started working harder. There was superb collaboration in the team. Real Madrid’s best attacking style, the counter attacks, were perfected. Fans and players felt a completely new wave of enthusiasm and determination. Zidane was also very wise to avoid the pitfalls that Rafa Benitez could not avoid. After a rare draw or a loss to Atletico Madrid, the pressure was starting to build. But Zidane showed his class by sticking to his tactics and not bowing to public pressure. The transformation of Casemiro from a bench warmer to the pivot of the Madrid team speaks tons about the effectiveness of Zidane’s tactics. At the end of all this, Real Madrid finished within just a point of league winners FC Barcelona, which had seemed to be a distant reality at the time Zidane took over. Zidane’s Real Madrid also ended the season winning a historic La Undecima, the 11th European Championship.
Zinadine Zidane is one of the greatest players of all time. Zidane has won all trophies with club and country. This immortal status of Zidane in football history automatically earns him some respect wherever he goes. Zidane has been a Real Madrid legend. The fans just love him. Zidane has always expressed his desire to do great things for Real Madrid. In fact, he was the assistant coach for Carlo Ancelotti when Real Madrid won the La Decima after a long wait of 12 years. Zidane was also the one to score the winning goal or Real Madrid in 2002 against Bayer Leverkusen to win them their ninth European cup. This history of Zidane’s association with the club had a major impact. The players right from superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to junior players like Borja Mayoral and Lucas Vasquez respected him. Zidane created a flexible system that switched fluently from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1 combination on the field. This system could shut out some of the most lethal attacks and also attack at a high intensity. For this he received tremendous co-operation from the famous front three of BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano). He also made Casemiro the pivot of the team’s midfield and played Toni Kroos in an advanced position. This change meant that Isco and James would not be regular starters. They too cooperated well. Zidane liked to use Isco as a 60th minute substitute to seal the game off. Isco did not disappoint. These 3 prominent changes had a huge impact on the performances of the team. These changes were possible only because the players were totally convinced of the new system. Zidane had instilled in the team an attitude to work hard and look out for the team. The world’s most expensive line-up which was performing at a mediocre level just 2 months back, now assumed its lethal form of demolishing teams. Real Madrid defeated FC Barcelona with 10 men at Camp Nou, Barcelona. They had actually lost their match to FC Barcelona in Madrid with 11 men by a score of 4-0 under the Benitez era.
A quick look at two eras brings out a lot of thinking points. Both managers had the same set of players. The players were all of high quality, with a good amount of experience. However one manager created history within six months from the time he arrived while the other one just seemed like a part of history everybody would like to forget about. The potential of willingness and attitude does indeed make a huge difference.
Real Madrid is the richest and most successful team in the world. Winning the Champions League 2 times in three years speaks loads about their quality. However, if you look at the first half of the 2015-16 season, they just did not seem like themselves. Watching such a talented squad performing poorly hurt many football fans. Their sudden transformation was not a drastic change in quality but a drastic change in mentality. A more optimistic Real Madrid under Zidane performed much better than Benitez’s team. Such a drastic transformation of a multi-billion-dollar club is something we all can learn from. As a footballer, I find several useful learnings from this season. First and foremost, one should always have hope. One should not start passing judgements based on the initial part of the season / phases of a journey. Every set of tactics needs a certain amount of time to click. Patience and faith are very vital in exceling at this beautiful game and similarly at everything in life. The second thing that I realized form this season was that the role of a coach is very important. The most important part of that role, along with having excellent tactics, is to win over the confidence of the players. Zidane was very successful in gaining the confidence of the entire Real Madrid squad. Faith and confidence in one’s coach is fundamental to extra-ordinary success.
As a person I learned that sometimes when one is not succeeding, one must not try to make big changes. A small change will act as a catalyst to propel you towards your goal. The second thing I learn from this season is that life is made up of two choices: easy ones and the correct ones. Florentino Perez’s decision to sack 2 managers within a space of 2 months put him under a lot of pressure. But finally, those decisions proved to be critical in turning the season around. Thus, this season has given me a lot of lessons, some related to football while some related to life in general.
With a great Coach, a great President who has the guts to make hard decisions and a plethora of world-class players, Real Madrid’s future is in safe hands. Hopefully they keep winning more and more trophies and make MADRIDISTAS across the globe happy.