It was January, it was cold and Real Madrid had just sacked their manager, although they weren't going to dwell on that. The news had been filtered to their friends and henchmen in the media before it had been filtered to Rafa Benítez, the man they got rid of. He wasn't even there that Monday night at the Santiago Bernabéu and had only just found out, incommunicado most of the day, but the man who replaced him was. Exit stage left, enter stage right. The king is dead (and was never really the king anyway) -- long live the king!
The real one this time.
You almost expected a puff of smoke. Benítez has gone... and now here in his place, as if by magic, an illusion, is Zinedine Zidane. There were no questions and no contrition: just excitement, all of which masked a certain desperation. Real Madrid had turned to Zidane, the most elegant man they had ever had, a player who stood apart from his peers, because they had to. There was no shield better and no questions, either. Instead, just a presentation, the Frenchman standing there with his wife and sons, along with club president, Florentino Pérez, everyone smiling broadly.
The next day, someone asked why they had sacked Benítez. "Now's not the time to talk about that," said Emilio Butragueno, the director of institutional relations, taking the place of Pérez in front of the media. It never would be; Zidane was the trump card played to eclipse all else. At least for now. The surprise to all of them -- to Madrid especially -- was that it would be forever.
Hiring Zidane back, an emergency measure at the time, turned out the be the best thing they ever did, which they never truly expected. They had doubted that Zidane was up to much -- surreal though it might sound, they still did and the president told people so on the morning that he won his third Champions League in a row -- but boy, was he. When he was presented as Real Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane was asked what he would count as success. "Winning everything," he said. As it turned out, he did. He won everything and did everything. In such a short space of time, it feels almost absurd now.
This week marked four years since Zidane took over at Real Madrid, which seems mad. Four years? Only? How can someone do so much in so little time? Win three Champions Leagues, one league title, walk out, walk back in, swallow four long, depressing months, risking getting burnt, legacy seemingly ruined, only to rebuild it again. And then only go and put together another, new team that's ready to win again made up of pretty much the same old players, like some kind of revivalist.
It feels like it's been ages since Madrid won the Champions League three years in a row, some distant past, but it's not. And looking at them now, as they boarded their plane for Saudi Arabia for the new, revamped Spanish Supercopa (which, by the old rules, they wouldn't have qualified for but for which they might now be favourites), it's hard to avoid the conclusion that somehow, and you're not really sure how, Zidane might have done it again. Quietly, almost unnoticed, but maybe he has. And he's done it his way.
When he took over four years ago now, Zidane was asked about his influences; "I have to be Zidane," he said. And he has been. It's tempting to suggest that no one else could have done this. When Zidane took over again, the talk around the club was of a "French revolution," only there hasn't been one. Zidane has a new goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois. He has Eden Hazard too, just as he always wanted to. He also had Gareth Bale, whom he didn't want. But Zidane hasn't got Paul Pogba, his great obsession. Otherwise, he has got everyone he always had. But while last year, as he took over for 12 long games, with nothing in play and no real point, seemingly suffering a low death, there is life again in Real just six months on.
As recently as six weeks ago, Isco looked like an ex-footballer. The doubt wasn't whether he had a place at Madrid -- he didn't -- but whether he would have a place anywhere else either. Now he, like the rest, has been revived. No fuss, no fanfare... just football. Zidane breathing life into his players. His people too, and that is the point. Gently, but assuredly. Zidane has got Isco back in the team, a model of what he seems to be able to do with everyone. One day, against PSG. And then another, and another and another. A player again.
On Saturday, in their last game before heading to Saudi Arabia, Madrid beat Getafe. They out Getafe'd Getafe, in fact. It wasn't sparkling, wasn't always that good -- "Courtois rescued us," Zidane admitted post-match -- but it was something. If only a priority. It was serious, and that does matter.
Pérez once told a Madrid manager that he cared little for the league; Zidane cares for nothing more. No one has valued Barcelona's title successes more than him. He also knew that even as he was in Kiev, on the morning he won his third Champions League in a row, the powers that be were doubting him, speaking behind his back and undermining him, suggesting that he wasn't all that. He knew; he is more astute, and more political, than he appears.
When he walked away, he talked more of failure than success, and he felt it. Losing to Leganés weighed as heavily as beating Liverpool. Only when they bettered Barcelona was he truly satisfied, fulfilled. There's something of Spring 2017 about his team now: the one year of those three when Madrid won the Champions League and they won la Liga as well, the one year of those three when you could say, with some confidence, that they probably were the best team in Europe.
It is true, halfway through the season, that Madrid trail Barcelona in the league again. But, while this may proven wrong, a feeling rooted in something other than reason, it feels different now. They only trail on goal difference (two goals), for a start. Madrid were the better team in the 0-0 clásico back in December, too. Take their respective trajectories and it feels like they are heading in opposite directions. Madrid, getting better. Barcelona, who knows? Madrid have flaws -- not enough goals, to begin with, with Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow a long one - but they have variety, a defensive strength they lacked, a seriousness. They have not reached this stage of the season having conceded as few goals as this for 30 years.
Fede Valverde gives them something different in midfield, Ferland Mendy does too in defense: of his 10 starts, seven have ended with clean sheets. Courtois is Courtois again, the invisible man once permeable, now impervious. Raphael Varane defending with pace and confidence. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, a portrait of past malaise, are back. Hazard has hardly been seen yet due to injuries, but he will be. He boarded the plan on Tuesday, joining a team that is not perfect, especially without Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, but which is... something.
Maybe this is the start, maybe this is Zidane's team again. You know, the one that wins.