They are the most valuable club in the world, gross more than €500 million in annual revenue and are the record champions of both Spain and Europe.
On five occasions they have shattered the world transfer record—most recently this summer with the €100 million acquisition of Gareth Bale.
If it seems Real Madrid are this monstrous, colossal enterprise—a ruthless corporation without a human face—it’s because they are.
For the most part.
In recent years, however, they’ve recognized the need for diplomacy, for a middle-man to both work the corridors of power between the boardroom and the manager’s office and represent the club in its relationship with the media and fans.
They’ve needed a peacemaker, and in 2010 they found their man in a former world-record signing. A man who, ironically, exited his playing career following one of the most famously violent incidents in the history of sport.
Not quite three years after his head-butt to the chest of Marco Materazzi earned him a red card in the 2006 World Cup final, Zinedine Zidane was appointed adviser to the president at Real Madrid. Florentino Perez had just returned to the club’s highest position, and a week before he broke the world transfer record for Kaka (he would break it again just days later for Cristiano Ronaldo) he made Zidane the first signing of his regime.
Initially tasked with working alongside Perez, general director Jorge Valdano and sporting director Miguel Pardeza in Madrid’s upper management, in November 2010 he was asked to take on the role of intermediary between Perez and head coach Jose Mourinho—a request made by Mourinho himself.
Not long after arriving in the Spanish capital the Portuguese had realized how little autonomy he had at the Bernabeu, and Zidane was transferred from the boardroom to the technical staff in an effort to massage what had become, after only a few months, a rather difficult relationship between himself and the club’s decision-makers—particularly Valdano.
The move proved a masterstroke as Zidane quickly adapted to the role of peacemaker.
With the January transfer window approaching it was he who ended up convincing Perez to support Mourinho in the manager’s bid to bolster the club’s attacking depth—support that turned into the loan acquisition of Emmanuel Adebayor for which Mourinho had been agitating all along.
With Zidane as the Mourinho-Perez envoy and with his own technical capabilities becoming more and more enhanced as he spent additional time with the first team, Valdano was sacked at the end of the season.
Today's Session | Zinedine Zidane & Iker Casillas: pic.twitter.com/lNLtoXeFcy— WeAreMadrid10 (@WeAreMadrid10) August 15, 2013
These days Zidane’s most important peacemaking role involves estranged goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who has yet to play a single minute of Primera Division football under new manager Carlo Ancelotti.
The Italian has been quoted by Marca as saying the Casillas would “get his chance to play this season,” but he has nevertheless started the campaign with the in-form Diego Lopez, who arrived at the club while Casillas was injured last winter.
With more than 650 career appearances for Real Madrid, 150 caps for Spain and a trophy cabinet that includes five La Liga titles and two Champions League crowns, Casillas—a favourite of the Madridistas—was always going to present a tricky case.
Zinedine Zidane, speaking in London: "I think it's great that Iker Casillas started yesterday. As for Real Madrid, we'll see."— AS English (@English_AS) September 7, 2013
But when asked about Casillas’ continued role as Spain No. 1 and team captain, Zidane told reporters he was “glad” the 32-year-old was continuing in the role, adding, “He’s a great goalkeeper.” (Goal)
With Lopez expected to start against former side Villarreal on Saturday, Zidane’s handling of Madrid’s goalkeeping situation will likely only become more important in the weeks and months to come.
In a Wednesday interview with the Daily Mirror he remarked that he didn’t believe Casillas would leave Madrid and said it was always better “to have these conversations face to face.”
How those conversations go will likely have everything to do with whether the club icon is still at the Bernabeu in January.
Finally, Zidane has become Madrid’s point-man for placating supporters who simply can’t get their heads around the money spent on Bale. Given the ongoing economic difficulties in a country racked by unemployment, the transaction could be construed as distasteful by many observers, and while the Frenchman doesn’t have an explanation he has publicly shared his own disbelief.
Referring to the fee as “incomprehensible,” he also told reporters this week that even he hadn’t been worth the €75 spent to bring him from Juventus in 2001.
“I said then I was not worth this,” he remarked. (Daily Mail)
Granted, his statements hardly shed light on an increasingly bloated transfer market, but at least they come from someone unafraid to go against the party line—someone more interested in building bridges with players, reporters and fans than retreating into the protection of the Madrid castle.
As a player he was an artist, a maestro; in retirement Zidane has become one of football’s great diplomats—an advocate of peace.