A few months ago, Zinedine Zidane made a comeback. For the third time, a waxwork statue of him was unveiled at the Musee Grevin in Paris.
In contrast to the previous versions, which celebrated his illustrious playing career, this one portrayed Zidane the coach — dressed in a designer suit, standing moodily with hands in pockets, master of all he surveys from the touchline.
At the unveiling, he declared himself “touched” by the tribute, noting that this statue had even less hair than its predecessor, and was asked about France’s prospects in the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. As so often, he answered politely without saying a great deal.
It got more interesting, though, when he was asked if he misses wearing the coach’s suit and whether we could expect to see him back on the touchline any time soon.
“I’m not far away,” he said with a smile. “We wait. We wait a little.”
When pushed further, he replied, “Soon, soon. But hey, we’re enjoying it (the break).”
It was widely believed that “not far away” and “soon, soon” referred to the possibility of taking over from Didier Deschamps as France coach after the World Cup. For all the links with Manchester United, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain since he left Real Madrid in May 2021, reports in France suggested Zidane “envisages almost nothing” other than coaching the national team.
But Qatar 2022 came and went, with France beaten on penalties by Argentina in the final, denying them a second consecutive World Cup triumph, and Deschamps’ contract, having expired at the end of the year, was promptly renewed until the summer of 2026.
Then it all kicked off. Barely 24 hours later, French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet agreed to an interview with radio station RMC, where he was asked, in the context of Deschamps’ new deal, whether he had heard of rumours linking Zidane with the vacant Brazil job.
“No,” Le Graet said. “But he can do what he wants. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve never met him. We’ve never envisaged parting with Didier.”
The interviewer suggested it would be heartbreaking for French football fans if Zidane took the Brazil job, to which Le Graet’s response “Je n’ai rien a secouer” can be literally translated as “I have nothing to shake” or more roughly as “I don’t give a toss” — which he clearly didn’t.
“I don’t care, don’t care, don’t care at all,” the FFF president went on. “He can go where he wants, a big club, a national team. I hardly believe this concerns me.”
He was asked whether Zidane had contacted him by phone. “Certainly not,” Le Graet said. “I wouldn’t even have taken the call. To tell him what? ‘Hello, sir, no, don’t worry. Find another club. I’ve agreed with Didier’?”
The essence of Le Graet’s point was reasonable enough; he had been happy for Deschamps to continue as France coach, so why should he express concern about Zidane’s future career choices or indulge the hypothetical notion of a phone call from him? But the dismissive, disdainful tone of Le Graet’s remarks caused outrage, attracting condemnation from, among others, PSG forward Kylian Mbappe, French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera and Patrick Anton, head of the FFF’s ethics committee.
More than that, it intensified the pressure on Le Graet, president of the FFF since 2011. The FFF has been embroiled in scandal since French magazine So Foot published a damning investigation in September, alleging a series of institutional failings and accusations of sexual harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour within the organisation. Some of those allegations related to Le Graet, who denied any wrongdoing.
The FFF denied those allegations at the time, threatening legal action against So Foot. The ministry for sport is investigating the matter with the intention of revealing its findings by the end of this month.
Le Graet held on, but the So Foot report weakened his authority and the widespread backlash against his comments about Zidane strengthened the feeling that his position had become untenable — at least for the time being. The FFF announced last week that Le Graet had been “mise en retrait” (set aside) until the publication of the ministry for sport’s findings. Deputy vice-president Philippe Diallo has taken over on a temporary basis.
It seems to speak volumes about football governance that Le Graet initially survived the allegations made by So Foot, yet his relatively trivial comments about Zidane were a tipping point.
But it also says something about the esteem in which Zidane is held — a reflection of a status which endures from his playing career, as the icon of France’s World Cup-winning team in 1998, and has been strengthened by his achievements as a coach, having won three Champions League titles across his two brief spells in charge of Real.
Deschamps is the man who led France to their first World Cup as captain in 1998 and to their second 20 years later as coach. His team selections are not universally applauded, by any means, but there is great respect for his record, which also includes taking his team to the finals of Euro 2016 and the 2022 World Cup. Yet many in France see it as an injustice that Zidane was overlooked.
Among some of Le Graet’s colleagues on the FFF executive committee, there is said to be frustration that Deschamps’ new contract had been presented by the president as a fait accompli when the Zidane alternative appeared at very least to be worthy of discussion.
As Bixente Lizarazu, another member of that 1998 World Cup-winning team, told L’Equipe this week: “What bothers me is that the subject of the coach has been treated with bias by Le Graet. Zidane merited as much attention and consideration for the France job as Deschamps.”
Zidane, though, has been left waiting. And it leads to two obvious questions. If not now, when? And if not France, where?
Zidane has never seemed interested in an itinerant coaching career, travelling from country to country, from one elite club to the next, touring the Champions League circuit which he knows so well. He started his coaching journey with Real Madrid’s B team and became the club’s first-team coach in January 2016. By May 2018, at the end of his second full season, he had, remarkably, led them to three Champions League titles. Five days later, he resigned — quite the mic drop.
He was out of work for nine months, in which time he was heavily linked with United (in the final days of Jose Mourinho’s tenure) as well as prospective vacancies at Chelsea and Juventus in the summer of 2019. But he didn’t wait that long; in March 2019 he returned to Real, taking over from his former team-mate Santiago Solari, this time with a mandate not just to put the club “back where it belongs” but to rebuild an ageing team.
The second spell brought some success, winning both La Liga and the Supercopa de Espana in 2019-20, but it was considerably less fulfilling. His Midas touch in the Champions League proved elusive and, while he integrated young talents Eder Militao, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior into the team, he was still heavily reliant on that ageing core. He left in May 2021 feeling wearied by the demands of coaching Real and particularly by club president Florentino Perez.
Nearly two years later he is still waiting for the right opportunity to return to management. He seemed hopeful that the job he wanted would come up — “Soon, soon,” — but now Deschamps has renewed with the FFF until 2026. Even if the coach were to step down after Euro 2024, it could mean another 18 months in limbo for Zidane.
More than just about anyone else in the business, Zidane appears willing to play the waiting game.
“When I was a player I had the choice (of) almost every club,” he told L’Equipe last year in a rare interview. “As a coach, there are not 50 clubs where I can go. There are two or three possibilities. If I go back to a club, it is to win. I say that in all modesty. That’s why I can’t go (just) anywhere.”
“Two or three clubs” sounds incredibly restrictive, but Zidane is fine with that. When Manchester United sounded out his availability, it was a non-starter. He knows what he wants — and based on his previous statements, that does not include working in the Premier League.
“Certain conditions make things more difficult,” he said. “Language, for example. When people say to me, ‘Do you want to go to Manchester?’ Well, I understand English but I don’t fully master it. I know there are coaches who go to clubs without speaking the language, but I work differently. To win, many elements come into play. It’s a global context. I know what I need to win.”
As well as the Brazil vacancy, Zidane has been cited as a potential target for the United States Soccer Federation should its ongoing investigation result in Gregg Berhalter losing his job as coach of the men’s national team. That, too, is a non-starter from Zidane’s perspective.
Zidane’s inner circle is very tight; he likes it that way, as does his long-serving agent Alain Migliaccio.
Beyond that inner circle, there are only educated guesses about where Zidane might end up. One source in the outer circle, speaking anonymously in order to protect his position, proposes that beyond the France job, the roles that would appeal most to him would be a third spell in charge of Real (in the right circumstances, which might require some grovelling from Perez), Juventus (where he had such success as a player) and his hometown club Marseille (should they reach a position where they can compete for the big prizes once more).
He has rejected overtures from PSG on several occasions — most recently last summer when they regarded him as a strong candidate to take over from Mauricio Pochettino. One factor was the prospect of getting the France job after the World Cup. Another was his enduring respect and affection for Marseille.
It is tempting to wonder whether, with the France job off-limits for at least another 18 months, Zidane might extend the “two or three possibilities” he talked about previously — perhaps opening his mind to any future opening at say, PSG, Bayern Munich or a leading Premier League club.
But when you have achieved so much as a player and as a coach, you can afford to bide your time, to pick and choose, rather than finding your career choices driven by financial necessity, a sense of vocation or a desperation to prove yourself.
In the meantime, we are left to wonder just how good a coach Zidane is. His achievements in Madrid will more than stand the test of time — to repeat, three Champions League titles in his first two and a half seasons as a coach — but watching his Real team, they often had the look of a formidable group of players who excelled on the biggest occasions, rather than reflecting a coach’s vision the way, for example, Pep Guardiola’s, Jurgen Klopp’s, Diego Simeone’s or Mourinho’s sides do.
But there are different ways to manage a team. And the Real job, in particular, has demanded a certain lightness of touch in order to handle the egos in the dressing room — and the boardroom, for that matter. Rafael Benitez and, ultimately, Jose Mourinho struggled in that regard. Zidane, like Vicente del Bosque and Carlo Ancelotti, found it second nature.
“We see some coaches who want to be the protagonist, like Mourinho and Benitez,” former Real president Ramon Calderon told The Athletic. “Zidane is the opposite. They (Del Bosque and Zidane) like to give the protagonism to players. They are backstage and manage the egos and the mentalities of the stars. It’s not easy to keep stars happy. Not all of them can play, which is a problem. You need strategy for matches, but above all, you must be a psychologist. These two (Del Bosque and Zidane) are the best.”
That is quite an endorsement, but it also raises questions of Zidane’s suitability to jobs in less rarefied environments. He showed a magic touch at Real, restoring order so quickly upon taking over from Benitez and then Solari, but not every club is like that. Some clubs require the coach to be the protagonist, to use Calderon’s word, or to build for the long term. Most clubs require the coach to make difficult decisions rather than, as often seemed to be the case during Zidane’s time at Real, following the path of least resistance.
It is a great paradox: the biggest club in the world seems to be the one which best suits a coach of Zidane’s quiet, somewhat introverted personality. It was certainly that way for Del Bosque, who excelled as coach of Real’s first Galacticos team in the early 2000s and later, with the national team, proved masterful in his handling of Spanish football’s golden generation, but between times he failed miserably during his only other front-line management job, in Turkey with Besiktas.
Zidane doesn’t need to work. He wants to work, but he can afford — financially, reputationally — to bide his time, rather than go for jobs he doesn’t truly fancy. One day, surely, the France job will be his.
But it is becoming a question of how long he is prepared to wait. For now, he remains the French king in waiting, hoping he is not doomed to become the eternal Dauphin.
Additional reporting: Guillermo Rai
(Top image: Photos: Getty Images / Design: Eamonn Dalton)
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