He has become a familiar sight at Real Madrid¹s press conferences before its Champions League matches: next to the Special One sits the Silent One, a former player whose list of honors rivals that of the coach (it includes a World Cup and European Championship success), and whose presence adds even more stardust to the Real Madrid name.
Zinedine Zidane rarely speaks at these occasions, and more often than not looks like he cannot wait to get out of the spotlight. And yet the Frenchman -- promoted in November from advisor to the president Florentino Perez to "special advisor to the first-team" -- has played a crucial role behind the scenes this season.
It was Zidane who brokered a truce between Mourinho and sports director Jorge Valdano, persuading Perez that Valdano was best kept away from the training ground and so preventing a potential midseason Mourinho walkout. He helped get the best out of striker Karim Benzema at a critical period of the season, when Gonzalo Higuain was injured and the team needed goals to get past Champions League Round of 16 opponents Lyon. He is also credited with persuading Perez that signing Emmanuel Adebayor on loan in January was a risk worth taking. Adebayor's two-goal performance in the 4-0 win over Tottenham proved as much.
Zidane spoke to the press after Real Madrid beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, claiming that the victory was "an important psychological advantage" before its Champions League semifinal, the third and most important game so far of their four-game sequence. It's likely that it will only be at the end of the season that Zidane may reflect on his newfound position and what it might mean for the future. His star, not for the first time, is on the rise in the Spanish capital.
It's been nearly five years since Zidane ended his career with a head butt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. In an interview with L'Equipe last year, he spoke of his regret at not playing on after that game. "I could easily have gone and played in the USA," he said. "Without doubt, I regret not having done that. I should have thought about the idea of this American adventure more seriously, more deeply, but there you are. It's much too late to go back now."
As it was, Zidane devoted time to his sponsors, backing Qatar's successful 2022 World Cup bid, and to his charity, the Zidane Foundation (which, he has insisted, received his lucrative payment from the Qataris). And he was always at pains to point out that he wasn't just "an ambassador" for Real Madrid. "In a way, I already was that, and I wanted to transmit my know-how and participate in the life of the club," he told L'Equipe.
He has also found a kindred spirit in Mourinho. It was hardly a genius move from Mourinho to realise that such an iconic figure would have the immediate respect of his players, but it was a powerful political gambit to get Zidane, who has the ear of president Perez, on his side as the war with Valdano continued.
Zidane, on the other hand, appreciates what Mourinho is trying to do: give the club a playing identity, and build a young side to compete with one of the best teams in the history of the game. "He is a brilliant leader, he gives all the players great belief, and makes them feel they are the best in the world before every game," Zidane said of Mourinho. "He's just what this club needed."
The same could be said of Zidane. "Football has given me so much and served me so well, I feel like I want to give something back," he also told L'Equipe, before conceding that his ambitions did not stop there. "It may be a little early to say something like this, but I would very much like to be a club president one day. Maybe president is a big word, but in any case I would really like to take care of a club."
Zidane has told colleagues that he is not sure what role he is being groomed for next at Real Madrid. But he is certainly enjoying his current one, even if he finds watching games more stressful than playing in them: "It's complicated, as there's nothing I can do to affect things."
Zidane's future at the club is not tied to the fate of Mourinho, though. His second coming at Real is under two years old, but already he has proved himself a canny political player. He scored the winner in Real's last Champions League success in 2002: this time around, most of his work goes unseen, but his influence is undeniable.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.