By Tales Azzoni
AP Sports Writer
MADRID — The hot-tempered France playmaker is gone. The level-headed Real Madrid leader is back.
The Zinedine Zidane who took over Madrid’s coaching job this year looks more like the serene midfielder who enchanted with his talent than the out-of-control player who head-butted his rival in the World Cup final.
After taking over a club in crisis, Zidane maintained his cool through good and bad, finding a way to keep Madrid’s season alive and getting off to a good start in his first major challenge as a manager.
A season that appeared lost not long ago enters its final stretch with Madrid in contention for titles both in the Champions League and the Spanish league. Zidane’s team is in the semifinals of the European tournament and within four points of Barcelona with six rounds left in the domestic championship.
“I’m happy with how things are going,” the 43-year-old Zidane said. “But I’m not naive. I know that there will be difficult moments. There have been some already, and one needs to know how to approach them. I’m continuing to learn and move forward.”
There have been no signs of the Zidane that lost his calm in the final of the 2006 World Cup, slamming his head into the chest of Italy defender Marco Materazzi in an outburst that shocked the soccer world.
The coach Zidane, sporting his fancy suits on the sidelines of the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, is nothing like the player who couldn’t control his emotions during the final in Berlin.
Always speaking calmly and with a low tone of voice, Zidane looks shy at times. He keeps his composure no matter the occasion, whether it’s talking to his players from the bench or answering tough questions from the media.
He will open a sly smile here and there and can get a bit more vivid when celebrating an important goal from the sidelines.
Using the experience of a successful playing career of nearly 15 years, his message has reverberated with players and brought harmony back to a changing room filled with big egos.
“As a coach it’s much more difficult,” Zidane said. “But I’m happy. I’m not worried about what is yet to happen. I’m focused on going day by day. … There are difficult moments, like the first leg (against Wolfsburg), but you have to stay calm, there’s no need to drive yourself crazy. It’s all part of football.”
Zidane said Tuesday’s 3-0 home win over Wolfsburg in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals was his best moment as a coach so far. Madrid had lost 2-0 in Germany and was on the verge of a stunning elimination that could have ignited another crisis and put his command in doubt.
“It was my best game as a coach,” he said. “I never let things get to my head when I played, and I will not let them get to my head as a coach, either.”
One of Madrid’s greatest idols as a player, Zidane became the coach after Rafa Benitez was fired in January following a series of poor performances, including a demoralizing 4-0 home loss to Barcelona.
Zidane also lost to a Spanish rival at home, 1-0 to Atletico Madrid, but his overall record after 18 games in his first major head-coaching job has been solid — 14 wins, two draws and two loses. Among his triumphs was a 2-1 victory over Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
“He’s doing a good job,” left back Marcelo said. “It’s not easy to coach a team like Real Madrid. There is always a lot of pressure to deal with.”
Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, was an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti when Madrid won its 10th Champions League title in 2014. He had been coaching Madrid’s “B” team in the third division before replacing Benitez.
As a player, he helped Madrid win the 2002 Champions League with a memorable goal in the final, and led France to the World Cup title in 1998 and the European Championship title in 2000. He was named the world’s best player of the year three times.
“I already admired him as a player,” Cristiano Ronaldo said. “I enjoy his way of coaching.”
Zidane stopped playing after the stunning head-butting incident in the World Cup, an outburst that will mark his career forever.
Things have started differently in his coaching days. For one thing, he uses his head a lot more wisely.
The impulsive playmaker has given way to the cool coach.
“I like what I do,” Zidane said. “That’s the most important thing.”