Football | Zidane bows out at the top

Four years ago today, Carl Froch knocked George Groves out at Wembley.

The last punch ‘The Cobra’ ever threw sent his nemesis sprawling, and sealed a memorable victory in front of 80,000 spectators.

Froch then hung up his gloves, and never fought again.

He went out at the very top, and there is something admirable about that.

So many sportsmen – boxers in particular – refuse to bow to Father Time, and continue on well past their peak.

Take David Haye, who vowed to retire on his 31st birthday.

The two-weight world champion was demolished by Tony Bellew earlier this month at the age of 38.

Football is no different, and many great players – think Rio Ferdinand at QPR – struggle on rather than admit defeat in their battle against the hourglass.

It takes wisdom and strength to bow out at the top.

Today, four years to the day after Froch’s famous victory, Zinedine Zidane has stepped down as Real Madrid manager.

The Frenchman became the first ever manager to win three consecutive Champions League titles less than a week ago, but has decided to walk away.

Zidane replaced Rafael Benitez as Madrid’s manager in January 2016, and had long since attained immortal status as one of the Galacticos during his playing days at the Bernabeu.

Los Blancos beat Deportivo 5-0 in ‘Zizou’s’ first game in charge, and also ended Barcelona’s 38 match unbeaten run with a 2-1 victory in El Clasico.

Zidane went on to guide Madrid to a second place finish in La Liga, finishing the season just a point behind champions Barcelona.

However,  Madrid ended the season with a major trophy nonetheless.

Real beat Atletico Madrid 5-3 on penalties in the Champions League final, following a 1-1 draw with their local rivals.

Zidane – who scored a famous winner in the 2002 final for Madrid – had won his first European title as a manager, less than five months after replacing Benitez in the dugout.

The victory made Zidane just the second man after Miguel Muñoz to win the trophy with Real Madrid as both a player and a manager, and the seventh overall player in history to win Europe’s most coveted prize as both a player and a manager.

This was just the beginning.

The 45 year old’s first full season at the club was his most impressive.

Madrid won a club record 16 consecutive La Liga games, and the European champions went a staggering 40 games unbeaten.

This incredible run saw the Spanish giants claim their 33rd league titles, finishing three points above challengers Barcelona.

Los Blancos also won the FIFA Club World Cup, beating Japanese club Kashima Antlers 4–2 in the final.

Zidane had also guided Madrid to the Champions League final for the second year running, where Serie A champions Juventus awaited in Cardiff.

Madrid beat Juve 4-1 in Wales, with Ronaldo (two), Casemiro, and Asensio grabbing the goals.

The comprehensive victory ensured a 12th European trophy for the club, and made Madrid the first club to win back-to-back Champions League titles.

After less than 18 months in charge, the 1998 World Cup winner had amassed two Champions League titles, a La Liga title, and a FIFA Club World Cup.

The French coach did inherit a mouth-watering squad full of world class players, but he handled a dressing room full of egos expertly. Despite repeated questioning of his tactical nous, Madrid continued to thrive.

The 2017/18 season – which has turned out to be Zidane’s last – was a strange one for Real.

Their league form was extremely patchy – particularly in the first half of the season – and it seemed that the life cycle of this all-conquering team was coming to an end.

They were streets behind league leaders Barcelona – who almost finished the campaign unbeaten in La Liga – for the entire season, and struggled to find their best form. Real suffered a shock defeat to Leganes in the Copa del Rey, and would eventually finish third behind Barca and runners up Atletico in the league.

They amassed just 76 points – their lowest league tally in 12 years – and ended the season 17 points behind Barcelona.

The pressure was mounting on ‘Zizou’, who hinted his third season in charge might be his last.

“It is very tiring, and more so at Real Madrid,” the 45 year old said of management.

“Clearly you can reach a point when a change is needed and that goes for everyone and not just the coach. It is not the moment right now but it will happen.”

Zidane’s side finished second in their Champions League group behind Spurs, which resulted in what looked like a daunting draw against high-flying PSG.

However, Madrid swatted the French club aside over two legs, booking a quarter-final against Juventus.

Despite a huge second leg scare, Los Blancos overcame Juve on aggregate, before knocking Bayern Munich out in the last four.

Madrid, looking to become the first team in history to win three Champions League titles in a row, met Liverpool in the final last Saturday.

Two horrendous Lloris Karius errors and a Gareth Bale wonder goal later, Madrid had retained their crown with a 3-1 victory in Kiev.

History was made, and Zidane decided to go out on a high.

They say that when Alexander the Great was 33, he wept for there were no more worlds left to conquer.

Zidane is 12 years older, but what is there left for him to conquer with Madrid?

After 104 wins (in just 149 matches), and nine trophies, now is the perfect time to walk away.

He averaged a trophy every 17 games as manager, and in less than three full seasons as Madrid manager, he has won more Champions Leagues than Sir Alex Ferguson, Bill Shankly, Pep Guardiola, and Jose Mourinho.

His overall goal difference is 233, and he walks away with a win percentage of close to 70%.

The former Ballon D’Or winner’s managerial legacy is assured.

“I have taken the decision to not continue going into the next season,” Zidane announced at today’s press conference.

“For me and for everybody, I think the moment to change has arrived. It was not an easy decision.

“It is a strange moment to do so, I know, but an important one too. I had to do this for everyone.

“This side should carry on winning and needs a change for this. After three years it needs another voice, another method of work, for this I took this decision.

“We always want more from the players, and a moment comes when I cannot ask them for more. They need another voice, to return to winning again.”

Zidane is likely to take a sabbatical, but he will have no shortage of suitors when/if he decides to return to management.

He is the first manager to resign under the reign of Florentino Perez, who says that he wanted Zidane “next to him forever”.

Resolving the futures of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo will be the task of Zidane’s successor, who has big boots to fill in the Spanish capital.