Last June was a busy month for Florentino Perez. In addition to appointing Rafa Benitez as manager to replace the sacked Carlo Ancelotti, the Real Madrid manager was also overhauling Real Madrid’s youth system. Through a process some called streamlining and others called cost-cutting, Perez disbanded Real Madrid C — the club’s second reserve team, playing in Spain’s fourth division — and excised two other youth sides.
For Benitez, it was an inauspicious start. Benitez himself played for Real Madrid C, having made his start there before spending the vast majority of his professional career with the Castilla, Real Madrid B. The Castilla was also where Benitez got his start as a manager in the 1990s. In 1995, Bentiez’s final season in charge of the reserve side, Perez was defeated in his first attempt to win the Real presidency.
Historically, the Castilla have always been shored up by several scrappy veterans with no chance of ascending to the first team, but Perez did away with that practice in his June overhaul, insisting that the club only sign players with chances of becoming first teamers in the future. There won’t be any more Castilla lifers like Benitez. And now, there won’t be anymore Benitez. The sword unsurprisingly fell on the first workday of 2016. He lasted just seven months.
FLASHBACK – JUNE: Benitez is destined to fail at Real Madrid.
Benitez never had so much as a harelip prayer as Real Madrid manager, and it didn’t take a genius to see it. The only reason he got hired in the first place was because there were no other top managers available. Perez had already hired and fired many of them. The man who is now replacing Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, wasn’t deemed ready to take the hot seat yet.
From the beginning, it was a match made in hell. Benitez is a notoriously defensive coach, and his dour tactics were neither becoming the job nor successful. Real doesn’t just want to win, they want to win with style. Add in Benitez’s grating man-management, the Clásico drubbing at the hands of Barcelona and the Copa del Rey fiasco, and the Benitez era was, predictably, a disaster.
This failure was hardly Benitez’s fault. The embarrassment here is, as usual, Perez’s. His culture of backbiting and tabloid hysteria has created a toxic atmosphere at the club, and his hubris in firing Ancelotti and replacing him with Benitez quickly proved toxic as well.
The stories that incessantly pour forth from the club paint an ugly picture. Perez wants a yes-man manager who will let him pick teams in which his signings, Gareth Bale most of all, can succeed above all else. It’s a almost wonder Benitez even took this job, until you remember his only other option was West Ham.
Of course, this is Real Madrid we’re talking about. They have a mouthwatering array of talent, incredible history and support, and are, even now, just four points off Atletico Madrid’s La Liga pace with a favorable European tie against Roma to look forward to. But here’s the reality: Los Blancos have won the league just once in the last seven seasons and have a single Champions League crown in the last 13 campaigns. They’ve only won the Copa del Ray twice in that span.
Compared to Barcelona and Bayern, Real is a sideshow. Their only identity is chaos, which is a shame unless you’re in it purely for the schadenfreude.
God help Zidane. Despite a small hiccup with his coaching licensure, he’s gone about his training for this moment the right way. By all accounts, he’s astute and detailed and has the kind of gravitas and presence that men like Benitez would kill for. He’ll be a great manager, but he probably won’t be a great manager at Real Madrid. If Real hasn’t won something by June, he’ll be out, and if former club president Ramon Calderon is to be believed, Jose Mourinho will be back at the Bernabeu.
Sure, Perez has a little more skin in the game with Zidane than he had with his zillion other managerial appointments. The Frenchman is Perez’s handpicked choice for the post, and unlike Benitez, Zidane was a legendary player in Madrid. He should be able to get the players back onside. But Real chews up and spits out managers like no other club on the planet.
The naïve play here would be to think that Zidane will be treated any different than everyone who has come before him. While his appointment carries more hope than Benitez’s, there’s no reason to truly believe he’ll have more support.
This is a club that has been underachieving for a decade. No man has been able to transform the counterproductive club machine. Now Zidane gets his shot, and here’s hoping he succeeds. But for now, it’s impossible to believe that anything substantial at Real Madrid is going to change.
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