“Ballon d’ or? A bunch of journalists and people voting for their friends ……………………. Let this be clear, I cannot take this Fifa award seriously anymore.” – This is not my quote, rather one from a legend who redefined football and himself won 3 Ballon d’ ors- yes, late Johan Cruyff. The Ballon d’ or and the FIFA Annual Awards is a separate entity again but the message remains the same. The main target of Cruyff’s comment was the FIFA Men’s Player of the Year where his Barcelona root too was a small factor behind the comment (Yes, you guessed it, it came after a Cristiano win) . Controversies, arguments and counter-arguments will always be there on quotes like this but when somebody of his stature makes himself this clear – we are bound to sit up and take notice. That debate is for some other day however, maybe. Fortunately for football fans, there is still some not-so-glamourous award in the FIFA Annual Gala and the Manager of the Year Award for Men’s Football is probably the best of the rest. Since its inception in 2010, there have been six different winners in six years.
The best thing about this award is the unpredictability here, unlike the Player of the Year Award. And the 2016 version may just happen to be the most closely competed one ever. Before we go into the details, nothing is stopping us from taking a peek at the three-man shortlist.
Claudio Ranieri (Italy) – Leicester City
Fernando Santos (Portugal) – Portugal
Zinedine Zidane (France) – Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo is almost certain to walk away with another Player of the Year trophy on the night of 9th January. And both Santos and Zidane has played a huge part in that almost-confirmed win. Neither of them, however, is as lucky as their student to be branded as “Runaway winner”. Nor is Ranieri. In fact, their achievements are so evenly matched that most of the football fans will probably be in favour of announcing all three of them as joint winners.
But yes, awards being awards have to be given and I won’t be surprised if just one percentage of vote separates the winner from the first runner up or so. So, let’s just try to look at the trio’s journey throughout the year and what brought them here. In this installment, we look exclusively at Zidane’s 2016. Coming up later are dedicated articles on Ranieri and Santos in part 2 and part 3.
Zidane took over from Benitez only in January 2016. One of the greatest players ever, his first ever year as manager was no less illustrious than his playing career. He guided Real Madrid to La Undecima, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup trophies. It was an exceptional turnaround from Los Blancos. And Zidane’s excellent understanding of the game and brilliant man management was a major reason behind it. In a team of big egos, Zidane knew when to switch on and off. In late September, after Ronaldo’s angry reaction on being substituted during a disappointing 2-2 draw to Las Palmas, Zidane declared: “He played well as always, On Tuesday we have a game in Dortmund and that is why I took him off.”
Burying own ego and explaining his action to the media for the bigger cause of the team is something that cannot be injected from outside and is pretty difficult to do. But what is more difficult is to understand where to draw the line. Zidane, for one, knows. Go back seven months in time. Following Real’s 1-0 defeat to Atlético Madrid in February which left them 12 points off top-of-the-table Barcelona, Ronaldo had said: “If we were all at my level, maybe we would be leaders.” Two days later, Zidane issued the statement:“Cristiano has spoken to everyone, with me and all, the matter is past. We know the importance of Cristiano and we’re all with him. What’s important is what we have ahead of us and we’ll get through it together.” In his first season as manager itself, Zidane has mastered the skill which Mourinho or Benitez could not show during their tenures, instead causing a meltdown in the dressing room. And he did it without any damage to the authority he possesses over the team. Cristiano had to speak to him after all. Zidane quite rightly has chosen not to be a puppet to the superstars in the dressing room but has never let a situation overflow the critical point either. Moving on to other aspects, the improvement in Madrid’s defence is clearly visible under Zidane and that is the main reason behind a stunning win-loss record of 41-2 in the 54 games he managed with 11 matches ending in a draw. The necessary aggression is also back in the team. Another area where Zidane has done excellent work is the development of the squad. He has brought back Alvaro Morata and has identified two potential superstars in Mariano and Marco Asensio.
Both of them have scored for Real madrid this season and when the time arrives, may prove to be vital in Real Madrid’s bid to fill in the void to be created upon Ronaldo leaving.
Nobody is perfect. And it may be hard to agree but neither is Zidane. The Champions League victory was not convincing at all. If it would have been any other team, the negativity would have drowned in the glory but when it is Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich (A few years back, Manchester United, AC Milan, Liverpool belonged to the list as well), there is bound to be close scrutiny. And it is safe to say that Real had its fair share of luck. But “Fortune favours the brave” and Zidane cannot be blamed for being lucky. Another blot in Zidane’s performance has been his handling of Benzema’s spot in the starting eleven. The French striker has not been in very good form this year but has constantly been chosen over Morata. It has not gone down well with many Madridistas. Real’s ability to close out games with a marginal lead is also questionable.
These minor blips, however, fade away in comparison to the achievements he had in his first year as a manager and he is hundred percent deserving of a spot in the three-man shortlist.