Anybody who has a passing interest in football knows who Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola are. Two titans of the game, one as one of the best players ever and one of the most successful coaches of the most successful team of all time, and the other as an excellent player and arguably the greatest tactician of all time. Besides this incredible success in football, and a severe lack of hair follicles, these two men share another trait; both are embodiments of the institutions that they have become most attributed with, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F.
To fully grasp how two men could be the physical representations of the spirits of two of the biggest sporting institutions in the world, one needs to trace the history of the clubs and the men. The footballing version of the USSR vs USA, the Madrid vs Barca is the most enthralling rivalry in the history of the sport. The two biggest clubs in Spain, two of the most successful teams in the world, and the two teams that had the pleasure of experiencing the peaks of the two greatest players of all time. Real Madrid vs Barcelona is a match up like no other.
So how are these two men the manifestations of these gargantuan clubs? Even more so than the two men in the picture above? To answer that, one has to pick up apart the cultures of the clubs individually, and the part that they play in the history of their clubs.
Barcelona are synonymous with one ideology. The radicals of the sport, operating under an overarching umbrella of one ideology, one ideology that guides their playing style from the starting 11 to the under-9’s. First exposed to the world by the enigmatic duo of Cruyff and Michels, Barcelona adopted total football as their own. Soon, they became moulded by it, changing the very face of the club, and the face of the sport as a whole. This ethos of playing beautifully and winning by doing so has become the very crux of the Barcelona story. From the Cruyff led side of the 70’s, to the Pep Guardiola led team of the late 2000’s. So where does Pep Guardiola fit into all this?
As a player, Pep is considered to be an excellent one, albeit not one of the best to ever play the game. Climbing through the ranks of the famed La Masia academy, that aims to instill the ideology of the club into its students from the youngest age possible, Pep broke into the first team. The La Masia aspect of his DNA is also very important, and we’ll come back to that soon. What would’ve been a largely normal career was changed by the influence of one man; Johan Cruyff. Made a vital cog of Cruyff’s dream team of the early 90’s, Pep received his footballing education from one of the greatest minds the footballing world had ever seen. Winning multiple league titles on the bounce and one UCL under the tutelage of Cruyff, Pep Guardiola learned what would later become his niche as a coach. The Cruyff-ian philosophy, or so to say, had been instilled in Pep.
On the other sphere of the El Clasico rivalry, a few years down the line, a magical combination was about to happen. Possibly the best player in the world at that time, the player who lead his nation to a World cup and Euros triumph, the player who Sir Alex Ferguson boldly claimed was all he needed alongside 10 pieces of wood to win the UCL, was about to join the most successful team in the world. Zinedine Yazid Zidane, in what was at the time the most expensive transfer in history, had joined Real Madrid. The second signing of the infamous Galacticos era, Zidane was the centerpiece of Florentino Perez’s dream of a team containing all the best players in the world. Zidane, who cannot be described as anything other than a mercurial genius, was a perfect fit for the club, and it’s ethos. Football’s answer to the Bolshoi ballet, as said by Michel Platini, Zidane wasn’t a player who would provide bucket loads of goals or assists, but he was the player who could alter any game in one swift act of inexplicable genius.
A player like this was perfect for a club like Real Madrid. A club who were not dogmatic about anything other than the fact that they had to win. To win everything. Whereas Barcelona were unequivocal in their belief that winning has to be done in a certain way, and preferably with their own youth products, all Real Madrid care about is to win attractively. Attractively is a very vague term, as it can mean picking apart your opponents like Barcelona, or by obliterating them on the counter or by bombarding them with a deluge of shots till one or more go in. They did not care whether the players were homegrown or not as well. Although the fans have always displayed a liking towards homegrown players, they have also always knackered for marquee signings, the big names, the ones who bring with them the glitz and the glamour. And in the early 2000’s, there were very few who were as glamorous as the Frenchman. Very few will argue that there is a club that embraces the larger than life nature of the sport more than Real Madrid, and Zidane, even though he does not have such a personality, aligned in a way akin to a syzygy.
As players, both ticked the boxes for their clubs, but their connection to the clubs go deeper than just players. As coaches, both have experienced even more success than they had as players, and more importantly, both have continued with their clubs way of thinking.
Pep Guardiola’s stint as coach was fraught with success. Playing a brand of possession oriented football, Pep Guardiola created what is arguably the greatest team to ever play. Moreover, the core of that team, Messi, Xavi, Pedro, Puyol, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and Valdes were all homegrown. Pep, a member of the dream team of the early nineties, had usurped the achievements of his master, and did so in a way that Barcelona fans craved. Pep brought to Barcelona the culmination of a love affair that started over three decades ago, winning a treble, three league titles and a Champions League.
On the other side of the El Clasico divide, 4 years after Pep’s departure, Zinedine Zidane was appointed at the helm of Real Madrid. In the following 2.5 years, he managed to do what no manager had ever done before, win the Champions league, retain it, and retain it again. While doing that, he also managed to snag a league title. And he did this in a way that no club other than Real Madrid could even dream of pulling off. With the greatest squad of all time, that had the likes of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Pepe, Kovacic on the bench, and a playing style that followed the motto “we have better players than you, and that’s how we’ll beat you”, Zidane created the second best European dynasty of all time, after the 50’s Madrid team of course. Superstar players, a gung ho approach to attacking, a never say die attitude fostered by Zidane, Ramos and Ronaldo, and an air of arrogance that comes with no club other than Real, Zidane breathed life into the Real Madrid dream. The greatest Galactico of the first era showed why Real Madrid are Real Madrid. A man indoctrinated with club values during his stint as a player, he brought those same values to the fore when he was made manager 15 years after his signing.
As players and managers, both men have encapsulated what their clubs were. Be it through a dogmatic approach to football, or through a cavalier way focused solely on winning. The idealist and the the superstar, as players and coaches. The very spirits of their club given a physical form.
Until now, these two bald greats have not met as coaches. However, since Zidane has returned to the helm of Real Madrid, and Pep Guardiola is showing no signs of taking a hiatus, it probably won’t be long before these two meet. With the tactical brilliance of one and the inexplicable ability of other to win games through the most simplistic of methods, there is no telling who will come out on top. The only thing that is sure is that the match will be incredible.