MADRID — At least as a coach, Zinedine Zidane is going out on top.
After ending his playing career by headbutting an opponent in the 2006 World Cup final, Zidane is closing out his stint with Real Madrid with the fresh image of him lifting the Champions League trophy.
Zidane made the surprise announcement that he was leaving Madrid on Thursday, less than a week after leading the team to its third straight Champions League title.
"You have to know when to quit," said the 45-year-old Zidane, who was Madrid’s coach for two and half seasons. "This is the right moment. I am a winner and if I don’t see it clearly that we will keep winning, it’s time for a change."
It was an unexpected move by the former great who won nine titles as Madrid coach, including the three Champions League titles, one Spanish league title, one Spanish Super Cup, two UEFA Super Cups and two Club World Cups.
"This club needs a change to keep winning," Zidane said. "With me it would have been complicated to keep winning."
Zidane also thrived as a player. He helped France win the 1998 World Cup, but his career ended after the 2006 World Cup final, when he was sent off in disgrace for headbutting Italy defender Marco Materazzi.
His decision to quit as Madrid coach suddenly left the Spanish club’s future in limbo.
Cristiano Ronaldo hinted after the Champion League final he may leave as well, and Gareth Bale, unhappy with his lack of playing time, could be on his way back to the Premier League.
"It was a completely unexpected decision," Madrid president Florentino Perez said of Zidane’s departure. "Today is a sad day for me, for the fans and for all the people who work at the club. I wish we could always have Zidane by our side, but we know that when Zizou makes a decision, the only thing we can do is to accept it and respect it."
Zidane spoke little about his future but said he is not immediately looking to coach another club. Perez also didn’t talk much about the club’s search for a new coach, although several names are being talked about in local media, including Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Joachim Loew and Arsene Wenger.
Zidane said there wasn’t a specific reason that led him to his decision, but apparently he saw enough signs to know things were not all perfect despite the good results.
"After three years, (the club) needs a change in speech, a new work methodology," he said.
Zidane mentioned the struggles the team faced this season, including in the Spanish league and the Copa del Rey. Madrid finished third in the league — 17 points behind champion Barcelona — and was eliminated at home by Leganes in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey, a moment which Zidane said was the worst of his coaching career with the club.
"We went through good moments but also complicated ones, and I don’t forget them," Zidane said. "I want to leave when everything is going well. This is a good moment to end it well."
Zidane said his best moment with Madrid was when he was signed to play for the club in 2001. He won the Champions League with the club in 2002, scoring an amazing volley in the final against Bayer Leverkusen.
"As a coach, there were a lot things, like winning the Champions League, but if there was one specific moment, it was to win La Liga (in 2017). It was the greatest thing," the Frenchman said.
Zidane was hired in January 2016 for what was his first major head-coaching job. The former star player arrived surrounded by doubts because of his lack of coaching experience but quickly surpassed expectations.
Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez after a stint with Madrid’s "B" team. He had been an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti when Madrid won the Champions League in 2014.
"It could be a ‘see you soon,’ because Madrid has given me everything and I’ll be linked to this club my entire life," Zidane said. "The decision may not make a lot of sense to many, but it does to me. It was time to make a change."