MADRID — Zinedine Zidane promises to make up for his lack of coaching experience by inspiring Real Madrid to play with the same attacking flair he displayed during his playing career.
"Football with a personal touch, with attacking play, is what I’ll aim for," the France great said at a news conference on Tuesday, a day after replacing the fired Rafa Benitez as Madrid coach.
"A coach is never really prepared, least of all one who hasn’t coached before. But I am motivated, excited, and that is going to ensure that things go well. I always believe that it’s important to play attractive, but balanced football, and I am going to work to get that on the pitch."
The 43-year-old Zidane, a three-time world player of the year and former Real Madrid star, coached Real Madrid’s reserve team in Spain’s third division for the past year and a half. He agreed to the promotion to coach the first team for the rest of this season, plus two more years.
Zidane’s first game as coach will be on Saturday against Deportivo La Coruna in the Spanish league. Madrid trails leader Atletico Madrid by four points, and is two points behind defending champion Barcelona, which has a game in hand.
Zidane previously served as assistant to Madrid coaches Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. He served under Ancelotti during the Champions League title run in 2014, and he knows most of the current squad.
Zidane said he would continue to play star forwards Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, although he said Bale was not happy with Benitez’s firing.
"I understand Gareth may be upset at Rafa’s departure, but he will be treated with affection. He’s a fundamental player," Zidane said.
The club said more than 6,000 fans turned out to watch Zidane take charge during Madrid’s traditional open first practice of the year.
Zidane was named manager on Monday when Benitez was fired midway through his first season. Many Madrid fans and the local media were left lukewarm by Benitez’s more defensive approach, exemplified by his conservative substitutions, such as removing Benzema on Sunday in the 2-2 draw at Valencia.
Benitez, who wept during his presentation last summer, bid farewell to "everyone at every level of the club," saying it was "an honour and privilege" to be Madrid’s manager. He also showed no hard feelings for his replacement in an open letter on his personal website.
"I would like to wish good luck to Zinedine Zidane, my successor, and his staff," Benitez wrote.
Zidane helped Madrid win the 2002 Champions League with a memorable goal in the final and led France to the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000. However, he blemished his otherwise stellar career with a head-butt of an Italian opponent in the 2006 World Cup final, earning a red card in his last international match.
Marco Materazzi, the recipient of Zidane’s infamous head-butt, wished the Frenchman well.
"The weight of Zidane’s personality will hold weight in the changing room," Materazzi told the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. "But it’s not going to be a walk in the park for him. For great players that become coaches, after two or three matches they’re already condemned to produce results. Anyhow, without being ironic, I wish him (…) good luck."
Zidane will look to restore harmony among his players, including James Rodriguez and Francisco "Isco" Alarcon, who lost starting jobs under Benitez, and to win over the Madrid fans still angered by a 4-0 loss to Barcelona in November, and its disqualification from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player.
David Beckham, a former teammate of Zidane from Madrid’s group of "galaticos," backed the move that some in Spain deem risky. He called Zidane "the best person for the job."
But as recent predecessors Mourinho, Ancelotti, and now Benitez, all learned, Madrid president Florentino Perez will accept nothing short of a major title at the end of each season.
That means Zidane must find a way to topple Barcelona as either European or Spanish champion. Barcelona has dominated both competitions, with four Champions League trophies in the last decade and five Liga crowns to Madrid’s one in the last seven seasons.