Who’s your club’s most iconic figure? Chances are it’s a manager. While players tend to hog the limelight in the here and now, it’s the coaches who tend to be looked back on as football’s real game-changers, the ones who are eventually immortalised in statues and stands.
Manchester United, of course, have Alex Ferguson. Liverpool have Bill Shankly. Bill Nicholson, Brian Clough, Herbert Chapman, Arsene Wenger, Howard Kendall and Ron Greenwood all belong in the same bracket, along with countless others.
In light of all this, Barcelona’s trip to the Bernabeu on Saturday throws up a strange contrast: between one club that is steeped in the above tradition perhaps more than any other – and one club that has ignored it completely.
The cult of the manager is often talked of as an English phenomenon, but a quick glance toward Catalonia shows that it’s by no means exclusively so. In fact, it’s hard to think of a club quite so in thrall to the ‘legendary coach’ figure as FC Barcelona. The club’s mythology encompasses not just one of these characters, but two: Johan Cruyff was the ideologue who dragged the club from a dark spell and moulded it into one that played stunning football, promoted youth and won everything in sight.
Then, two decades later, Pep Guardiola – himself a born-again Cruyffian – repeated the trick, this time to build perhaps the best side in history.
But their rivals in the capital have no such narrative. Not even close. Indeed, Real Madrid are perhaps alone among Europe’s storied superclubs in the complete absence from their history of a genuine icon of the dugout.
Which isn’t to say they’ve never had a great manager. In the last two decades alone they’ve been led by Jupp Heynckes, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and, on two occasions, Fabio Capello. Each of those men are worshipped as pivotal figures, bona fide legends, at other clubs.
At Madrid, though, they never made quite the same mark on the place, never truly bent the club to their will as they did elsewhere. They came, and in most cases they won trophies. Then they left. Most did good work, and are still thought of fondly. None, though, could be described as icons.
Part of the reason for this may be that Real Madrid, to put it broadly, have always been successful. When Shankly arrived at Liverpool they had been in the second tier for five years. Before Matt Busby, Manchester United were a yo-yo club. Madrid, on the other hand, have never found themselves in such lowly conditions. They have never been relegated; their bleakest period – a 14-year title drought after the civil war – included two runners-up spots and two Cop del Reys. If Real’s history lacks a white knight figure, it’s because the club has never needed rescuing.
Two managers more than any other have made it to within touching distance of legendary status while coaching Madrid. Miguel Munoz managed the club for 14 years, winning nine leagues, two European Cups and becoming the first person to win the latter as player and manager. He led the club to the fabled victory over Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park, 7-3.
Yet unlike other legendary European Cup-winning sides – Sacchi’s Milan, Clough’s Forest, Guardiola’s Barcelona – that team is recalled not by its coach but by its players: that was the Madrid of Di Stefano and Puskas.
Munoz’s time at Madrid is remembered as much as anything for a fall-out with Di Stefano that saw the latter sold to Espanyol. Nothing wrong with that – turfing out a club legend or two needn’t mean relinquishing that status yourself, as a certain Glaswegian will gladly testify – but it’s telling that one of those is still venerated unreservedly at the Bernabeu, the other less so.
A quarter of a century later, Vicente del Bosque took over and performed similar heroics, in the course of four years winning two league titles, two European Cups and no little admiration from fans and neutrals alike. But again, despite his evident excellence, Del Bosque was granted only a secondary role in the grander story; the real protagonists were on the pitch. The galacticos era – and the clue’s in the title here – is not remembered for its coach.
Which brings us to Zinedine Zidane. He was the gleaming hero of that era and he is, conveniently enough, the current occupant of the Madrid dugout. He hasn’t done badly either, amassing a nifty total of eight trophies in just under two years. He has delivered two European cups, a world title and halted the Suarez-Messi-Neymar juggernaut in the process.
This should, under any normal circumstances, be grounds for unequivocal and undying reverence: for someone who, like Cruyff or Dalglish, wrote themselves into club legend by achieving greatness on both sides of the touchline.
And maybe he has. But there remains the faint sense – and a pretty well-founded one – that as well as Zidane performs, he will only ever be a poor patch of form away from the sack: not a position you tend to associate with the managerial greats. It’s also hard to escape the idea that, excellent as Zidane’s teams have been, they have hardly been the product of any training-ground genius.
Coming in to diffuse the tension caused by the control-freakery of Benitez, Zidane’s greatest trick was to loosen the shackles, stand back and let this squad of majestically gifted players do their stuff.
We all know what the archetypal Cruyff team, or Simeone team, or Klopp team plays like. But what does a Zidane team play like? His side are often wonderful to watch, but there is no signature here, no evidence of a grand vision being realised. Whisper it, but the sense remains that Zidane is little more than just another coach, and – unlike Ronaldo and Ramos – will be remembered as such.
What does this all mean for Madrid? Probably not a whole lot. It has often been argued that the primary role of the football manager, ever since its inception in Victorian times, was essentially to act as a lightning rod for the fury and frustrations of the crowd, and in doing so keeping the board members safely shielded from public opprobrium.
Others have shown that the manager, contrary to their lofty status, only wields a very tiny influence on a team’s performance. These are not empowering notions, and especially not in today’s climate of sack first, ask questions later.
Madrid’s treatment of its managers – going through them at the rate of about one a year, idolising no one, regardless of pedigree – is perhaps, then, simply an honest reflection of reality. Not for them the messiah complex that has hamstrung Liverpool and Newcastle, nor the false promises of “philosophies” and “dynasties” that other clubs feed their fans upon each new appointment.
Then again, it’s hard to escape the idea that as realistic as this approach may be, there’s a certain coldness at the heart of it. That, in eschewing the entire idea of manager-as-protagonist the club is also eschewing a sense of romance, however misplaced, that sustains so many other fanbases.
Ask a Liverpool supporter how they can realistically hope to return to their perch anytime soon, and they will tell you: Jurgen Klopp. Go to see Spurs play and the name reverberating most often around the stadium is not Harry Kane or Deli Alli, but Mauricio Pochettino.
“He promotes the youth players and he plays the Barca way,” said the Barcelona president when the club hired Ernesto Valverde in May. Empty PR guff? Maybe, maybe not. But either way it showed a club who see the manager as central to the identity it projects.
The fans, raised on a diet of Cruyff and Guardiola, will trust that events on the pitch will show the president’s words to be sincere. In an age when the average managerial tenure has been whittled down to 1.3 years, the premises of such optimism may be false. But the hope – the romance – is no less real.
Then again, as a Real Madrid fan might fairly argue: who need romance when you’ve got 12 European Cups?