(I was lucky to be seated a few meters away from Zinedine Zidane in last Saturday's Clásico, and I had, next to me, Zizou's wife, Véronique, this is my account of what happened at Camp Nou).
Gareth Bale suspended himself in the air. His header was perfect, to the lower left corner of Claudio Bravo’s goal, where no goalkeeper can get to a ball. Zinedine Zidane jumped to celebrate the goal, turned to where I was sitting and pointed his finger. It was the goal that would give Real Madrid an improbable and fantastic 2-1 victory at the Camp Nou, and the person with whom Zizou wanted to share his joy was not me, of course, but his wife, Veronique, who occupied the seat next to mine.
The goal, however, did not count. For no apparent reason, the referee Hernandez Hernandez decided that it wouldn’t be the Welshman who decided the game. Two minutes later, Sergio Ramos received a red card as absurd as it was deserved, for a hard foul on Luis Suarez.
Joy and celebration had turned into disappointment. With 10 players, Real Madrid’s hopes seemed to have evaporated. Barcelona had spent 39 games without losing. How would they be defeated in front of fans in the biggest game of the league?
However, the merengues on Saturday were not the same as the ones that had lost again and again to their archrivals. Those who collapsed at the first sign of adversity. They were dominated in the first half and received a goal a few minutes into the second, scored by none other than Gerard Pique, perhaps their most hated player, but they never wavered. At another moment, the merengues would have dug their own graves and meekly walked inside.
Zidane, however, never lost his belief. He knew this was his chance to prove he was the right manager for Real Madrid. His icon status as a player has never been in doubt, but after 4 months as the coach of the blancos, fans were much more critical. They complained that the team did not play well. They complained that they lagged 10 points behind Barcelona, nd that the league was lost. They wondered if the opportunity hadn’t come too soon for Zizou.
From the Barcelona goal, the Frenchman gave no respite to his players. He roamed his technical area, shouting instructions to everyone. He jumped when the team created vhances and even twice fell as his strikers missed. A few meters away, and beside me, Véronique lived it even more intensely. “Run, run, run!,” “Noooo, to the other side!” The woman was an extension of her husband. They both knew what was at stake.
Real Madrid knew as well. As minutes passed, Marcelo became a nightmare on the left wing. Casemiro took possession of midfield and Bale make Jordi Alba shudder with his speed and power. And the equalizer arrived, orchestrated by two players that had so far probably been the more disappointing of the game. Toni Kroos received the ball in the area and pulled a low cross, the ball was deflected up in the air, and Karim Benzema, with art and decision, scored with a scissors kick.
Zidane celebrated as he was still playing. He raised his arms. He shouted loudly. But as he used to on the pitch, he added intelligence to passion. He realized that Barcelona was slower than usual. More vulnerable. He decided to bet on speed. He sent Jesé to the pitch, instead of Benzema. And that decision changed the game.
Suddenly, Messi, Suarez and Neymar no longer received the ball. Iniesta disappeared from midfield. The best team in the world had lost its way. Real Madrid, meanwhile, created danger every time they went beyond midfield. Keylor Navas became as a spectator and Claudio Bravo’s gloves got dirtier every minute.
And then Bale scored. And Veronique and Zidane celebrated. And the referee decided it was not valid. And Ramos got a red card. But no amount of adversity would be too heavy a burden this time. It was the night of Real Madrid. They were just missing the final push.
And that push came from the most important player that has not been mentioned in this text. For 78 minutes, Cristiano Ronaldo lived the same suffering that he lived in recent classics. He ran his butt off, tried to be present, even tracked back to defend, but without success. In Spain, he has been accused of never living up to the big occasions, and for most of the game on Saturday, it seemed that history would repeat itself.
Then the Portuguese woke up. It was he who crossed the ball for Bale’s goal. A minute later, shortly before Ramos’ sending off, he sent a shot against the crossbar prompting the French coach to again fall to the ground in frustration. And at the 84’, he puts the icing on the cake. He received a cross by Bale inside the box controlled the ball with his chest and finished with a decisive effort.
This time, Zizou could not celebrate with Véronique. When he tried to turn around, the embraces of his coaching staff and substitute players drowned him. Everybody who wore a white shirt wanted to celebrate with their young coach. But a few seconds after final whistle he turned back and fixed his eyes a few centimeters next to where I was sitting. The gesture of complicity and the frank smile seemed to tell his wife "we’ve made it".
Despite the victory, the merengues have very little chance of winning the league. Barcelona leads them seven points clear and it seems impossible that such a good team will let that advantage slip away. But maybe Real Madrid and its coach won something more important: credibility… and time.
Nobody will say that French is not good enough for the team anymore. Nobody will suggest that he’ll be fired after the season. Zizou will have time to start his own project and bring his own players. And it might herald a new era for the Blancos.
And if that happens, the history books will probably say that Zinedine Zidane took office on January 4 but became the coach of Real Madrid on April 2.