“Pura vida,” declared Zinedine Zidane to a Spanish television reporter after his side’s victory over Liverpool in the Uefa Champions League final on Saturday. “Pure life” – a Spanish phrase reserved for the highest of the highs.
Zidane, 45, had watched the match on the sidelines in his suit, looking as classy as he did as a player, the man who made 681 appearances for Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid.
The managerial fuse is a short one at the Bernabeu, with an average change of one per year over the past three decades, yet Zidane’s calmness and refusal to be sucked into the daily battles help him roll with the punches.
The Frenchman counters Madrid’s cocksure arrogance by being the opposite. He is less emotional and confrontational than the younger Jose Mourinho was, the Portuguese being the man who invited him to work with Madrid’s first team in November 2010.
Within seven months he was Madrid’s sporting director, one respected by Mourinho and – crucially – his players, for he was at his peak in his playing career the world’s best footballer.
Not being a top player always went against Mourinho with some Madrid players.
After a spell heading Madrid’s reserve team, Zidane was promoted as manager to replace Rafa Benitez in January 2016.
He has done that job for 28 months. In that time he has become the first manager to win three successive Champions Leagues and has not lost a single knock-out tie as Madrid manager. He has also won two Fifa Club World Cups, two European Super Cups and the 2017 Primera Liga title.
More silverware could be on the way soon. His side will meet neighbours Atletico Madrid in August’s European Super Cup in Tallinn and compete in December’s Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. No manager has won so much in so little time.
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona won two European Cups in three years between 2009-11, but Zidane has won three out of three.
His side are not venerated to the same degree as the Catalans, whose style was more entertaining and whose team contained a high number of youth team graduates.
Madrid were expensively assembled and they were largely a complete team when he took charge, but he has created a winning machine.
Madrid may ride their luck, but they always, always get the job done, always beat the fellow giants in their way. Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich were all eliminated before Saturday’s final tie against a Liverpool team who had thrilled in their run to Kiev. Cynical? Madrid only committed six fouls in the entire game.
Madrid may have finished third in the Primera Liga, a competition Zidane maintains is harder to win than any cup.
They finished 16 points behind Barcelona and much criticism flowed his way, but it melts away when he keeps winning the Champions League, the bigger, more glamorous, competition, the trophy Real Madrid want to win above all others.
Only three teams had previously won the competition three times in succession – Madrid in the 1950s when they won the first five European Cups, and then Ajax and Bayern Munich in the 70s. No team had been able to retain it between AC Milan in 1990 and Madrid in 2017.
Their side is packed full of vastly experienced winners. Cristiano Ronaldo has won the competition five times scoring 120 goals, 20 more than nearest rival Lionel Messi, who is three years younger than the Portuguese.
Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, Lucas Vazquez, Nacho Fernandez, Casemiro, Keylor Navas, Dani Carvajal, Marco Asensio, Raphael Varane and Gareth Bale are the core, though Bale was deeply disappointed not to start in Kiev.
While Bale’s time in Spain has been punctuated by injury, Madrid have won four Champions Leagues in five years since the Welshman arrived.
Madrid have now won the competition more times (13) than all English clubs put together. Plus all Italian and German clubs.
Zidane, who scored one of the great final goals in 2002 when Madrid won their ninth European Cup, was criticised at the start of this season for letting experienced players go and bringing in too callow replacements.
Ronaldo, Benzema , Marcelo and Ramos are all over 30, but the side is bubbling with young talent. Assensio is 22, Mateo Kovacic 25, Varane 25. Isco, Casemiro, Vasquez, Carvajal are all 26. Kroos, Nacho and Bale are still only 28.
Madrid will always look to strengthen. They have money and, after La decimotercera (Number 13), there are few players in football who would not be tempted to play, if the offer came in, for them and the deeply respected Zidane, the man who will stay around to try and keep Madrid at the top.