MADRID, January 5 – Thousands of Real Madrid fans turned out to cheer Zinedine Zidane as one of the all-time great players started his first day as coach of the Spanish giants, confessing a “difficult” challenge lay ahead.
While commentators expressed doubts about the Frenchman’s experience, 5,000 fans packed the Alfredo di Stefano stadium at Real’s training ground to see Zidane take his first session with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and other superstars.
The 43-year-old Zidane got right down to work within hours of Rafael Benitez being sacked on Monday night.
“Zizou! Zizou!” fans chanted as the World Cup winner walked out onto the pitch with his players wearing a grey tracksuit and fluorescent boots.
The Frenchman, whose only previous coaching job was in charge of Castilla, the Real B team, gathered players around him. Then he kicked the ball to start a training exercise, drawing delighted shouts from the crowds.
Real president Florentino Perez sacked Benitez after the Spaniard struggled for seven months to win over Madrid’s fans and leading players.
The club has suffered a year-long slump that has seen them burn through two Champions League-winning coaches — Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti.
They are in third place in La Liga, four points behind leaders Atletico Madrid and two points behind eternal rivals Barcelona, who have a game in hand.
– ‘Difficult but stimulating’ –
Madrid were recently booted out of the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player, but they are still in the Champions League, facing Roma in the last 16 next month.
And Zidane insisted Tuesday that his aim was to win a trophy.
“This is a difficult but stimulating challenge, I want to take up the challenge and do my utmost to win titles,” he told reporters in a highly-mediatised press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“I’m at the best team in the world,” said the Frenchman, who played for the club between 2001 and 2006.
“Our objective is to win, we have two titles that we can win and we will try,” he added in reference to the Champions League and La Liga.
All eyes will now be on whether Zidane has the temperament and tactical ability to gel Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ into a trophy-winning unit.
Key players such as Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez often showed their disgust when substituted by Benitez.
Off-field distractions also took their toll with Benzema facing blackmail charges over a sex-tape of France teammate Mathieu Valbuena, and Rodriguez accused of speeding at up to 200kph (124mph) last week.
Zidane is not known for his communication skills and had a fiery temperament on the field as a player. His career ended with an infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy.
But he is respected by Madrid’s players and adored by their fans for his feats on the field, highlighted by his brilliant winner in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.
Spanish media said, however, that Zidane has his work cut out because of his lack of experience.
“The Frenchman is a football legend and a great figure of Madrid,” wrote Marca, Spain’s most read sports daily.
“But his coaching experience is inversely proportional to his excellent footballer’s experience — limited… and controversial.”
He has spent a season and a half in charge of Madrid’s feeder team Castilla, which failed to secure promotion from Spanish football’s third tier last season.
But he has the advantage of knowing the players well — he was Ancelotti’s deputy in 2013 and 2014.
And the team appeared relaxed on Tuesday, with players all smiles.