Before he became the globally famous and multi-trophy winning player and coach known as Zizou, Zinedine Zidane went by the nickname of “Yazid”. That was the moniker everyone knew him by at his first club, AS Cannes, and it is still the name by which Guy Lacombe, his coach at the time, calls him today.
Lacombe was the man who brought Zidane through the youth ranks at the southern French club nearly 30 years ago. Now in charge of coach training at the French Football Association, he crossed paths with his former pupil on one of his courses two years ago. While it goes without saying that Lacombe has been a pivotal figure in the Marseille-born Zidane’s career, their relationship has also been a beneficial one for the veteran coach, as he explained to FIFA.com.
“It was fantastic to see ‘Yazid’,” said Lacombe, who also nurtured the talents of Johan Micoud, Peter Luccin and Patrick Vieira during his time at Cannes’ youth academy, between 1990 and 1995. “It was great fun to see him again on the course, after all these years. It was a happy coincidence, and just like I did 30 years ago, I made sure I gave him as much support as I could, like I do with all the other budding coaches. I have to admit, though, that I feel especially attached to him. There’s a bond between us.”
Zidane was 15 when he pitched up at Cannes, where he came under the tutelage of the former striker, a gold medallist at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Los Angeles 1984, who would teach him the ins and outs of the trade. “I’d be lying if I said Zinedine Zidane had his career as a player mapped out for him. ‘Yazid’ was a technically gifted youngster, but he had a lot to learn.
"He wasn’t that great a player when he wasn’t on the ball, for example. But he learned, he grew and he picked up things from every game he played to become the player that he was. He developed and improved as time went on and he invested an awful lot of himself in having the amazing the career that he had.”
A FIFA World Cup™ winner in 1998, a three-time FIFA World Player of the Year (in 1998, 2000 and 2003) and the recipient of countless other trophies and accolades over the years, Zidane moved into coaching after calling time on his playing career, a step that has so far proved to be a successful one. “Seeing him make the shortlist for The Best FIFA Men’s Coach of 2016 is no surprise given the season he’s had, but if you’d asked me two years ago to predict that, I wouldn’t have been able to,” said Lacombe.
“That’s one of the great things about our job. You get these surprises. Coaching was not an obvious option for him. He thought about it for a long time and was a bit hesitant about it. He was Jose Mourinho’s assistant and then Carlo Ancelotti’s. The idea of pursuing a career in coaching came to him gradually.”
Warming to his theme, Lacombe added: “As soon as he knew for sure that he wanted to coach, he really applied himself and went about his business professionally. Zidane never does things by half. He really wants to succeed in his job and he knows how to make that happen. He put himself on the spot, in a difficult position, by starting out with Castilla’s youngsters. It wasn’t an obvious step, but I feel it’s allowed him to break through and become the great coach that he is today.”
Appointed the coach of Real Madrid’s reserve team in the summer of 2014, Zidane replaced Rafael Benitez as the club’s first-team boss in January 2016 and has enjoyed nothing but success since then. As well as overseeing an immediate improvement in Los Blanco’s flagging league form, the Frenchman steered them to an 11th UEFA Champions League title and is now presiding over a club record 35-match unbeaten run.
“You get the feeling that he has an exceptional career ahead of him,” said Lacombe, who also enjoyed spells in charge at Rennes, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. “He had one as a player, and we’re about to find if he’s going to have one as a coach too. It’s incredible. It’s like I’m dreaming with my eyes open.”
Out of nowhere
Having himself switched from playing to coaching, Lacombe knows as well as anyone just how difficult it is to make the transition, one that many a great player has failed to complete. “’Yazid’ has realised that his playing career wasn’t enough, that coaching is an entirely different ball game and that can’t you make it up as you go along,” said his former mentor.
“To avoid the pitfalls he’s been methodical in his approach: he’s watched, studied, done his training, got his badges and he started out with the youngsters at Real Madrid. That’s the key. A lot of ex-players think that they don’t need to go back and start from scratch, because of the experience they gained on the pitch, but Zidane was humble enough to go and start over.”
The progress Zidane has made since then has been exponential. His transition from the Spanish second division to the top flight and the Champions League has been seamless to say the least. And while he knows the club inside out, it is an institution where failure is not as easily tolerated as elsewhere.
“The higher you go up the ladder, the tougher it is to coach,” said Lacombe. “That’s to be expected. You might have better players at your disposal, which means you’ve got more solutions for the problems that come up on the pitch, but the fact is that managing a club of the stature of Real is like performing microsurgery. It’s very difficult. Coaching Real is harder than any other club. Except for Zidane it’s not.
“If it’s going to work, a coach has to be in the right place at the right time,” said the former Nantes, Toulouse and Lille striker. “I knew it was the right place, but I also knew it wasn’t easy. Zidane knows Real better than anyone. He has a great relationship with the president, the players and the fans. As for the right time, I wasn’t sure about that. But I think I’ve got my answer now.”