McManaman: 'Zidane is the perfect manager for Real Madrid'
In an in-depth exclusive interview with Guillem Balague, ex-Real Madrid midfielder Steve McManaman discusses everything from the best Galactico to Zidane's personality and whether Ronaldo or Messi is better.
Steve McManaman spent a successful four years in Madrid winning eight trophies in that time including two league titles and two Champions League trophies. During his stint with the club, he played against Barelona seven times, won three of those, drew four and never lost. So, on the week of El Clásico, there are worse people you could sit down and discuss the derby with. Guillem Balague did exactly that and the discussion ranged from El Clásico to Zidane's temperament as a player and whether or not he saw his former teammate becoming the manager of Real Madrid one day.
GB: You remember the goal you scored in a Clasico?
SM: Yeah, the goalkeeper, Bonano, I chipped it over his head late in the game. The main thing about it was that it was the semi final of the Champions League, the first leg away from home and you go to Barcelona and win 2-0. Effectively, you're in the final. That was the most important thing about that game.
GB: Is it the kind of thing that people still remind you of in England?
SM: Not really, nobody knows at all about it in England. I think in that era it wasn't on television like it is now because the game wasn't as big then as it is now. There used to be a game on now and then but not like now. The Champions League game would have been on but people would have been more focused on English teams and not on two Spanish teams. Now, it's become much more popular because the two team are considered really cool. Back when I played, Barcelona weren't the best around. As much as they were a big team, they were only about the third or fourth best at the time. There were teams like, one year it was was Real Sociedad, then another year it was Depor. Of course Barcelona were there but they were nowhere near as dominant as they are now
GB: What team do your kids support?
SM: Well I only have a four year old boy and so he is too young to know anything about it but he dresses in Real Madrid colours because I put him in Real Madrid colours. I certainly won't put him in a Barcelona kit.
GB: Where do you stand on the Cristiano/Messi debate, not necessarily as to who is the best but in relation to where they are in comparison to other players in the past?
SM: I think we're incredibly lucky that we've got Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the same time; challenging each other every single year to be better. Cristiano scored 16 in the Champions League last year, Leo is now on nine after four games. It's just this competition between them every single year. Who can score the most goals, who can break the next record. We are really blessed with two different types of players. I think they are the best.
It's nigh on impossible to compare say Cristiano or Leo with Pele because they played 30 or 40 years apart. The difference is when you speak about legends of the past you normally speak about one person, whether it was Cruyff, Maradona, Pele, and the other players just stand around. But these two are brilliant and have been for the last seven years. The numbers of goals that they churn out every year is just phenomenal. I don't think we'll get this ever again. Different types of player, different qualities, but they certainly have to be, arguably the greatest, definitely, regardless of not winning World Cups what they are achieving every single week when you average a goal a game, not in two games, but in 400 games. It absolutely bonkers!
GB: I have named you the manager of Biggleswade United and although we have a really good squad , you only have the money to buy either Leo or Cristiano. Which one do you buy?
SM: Well what style do you play? Leo suits Barcelona down to a tee and Cristiano suits Real Madrid the way they play. I don't think this thing that Leo Messi would find it hard against Stoke on a Tuesday night makes any sense. He'd probably find it very easy, but the fact that Cristiano has played in three different leagues I would probably just give him the nod.
GB: When you arrived Raul said of Real Madrid that, "The dressing room was a cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers, I feel sorry for players like Steve McManaman coming into the club."
SM: When I joined the club they had won the CL in 98. I joined them in 99 and they had won nothing that year. I think there was a lot of in-house fighting. People named players like Mijatovic, Suker, Panucci, Seedorf, big characters that would do just what they wanted, dated local celebrities, but I had no idea. They are all now very good friends of mine, I love them and I think they are brilliant people But when I got there I didn't know anything about that and didn't feel any of it. Maybe it was because I didn't know the language or what. But there were a lot of changes and people left and new players came in. So, I think after I joined, that line came to an end and became meaningless. When I got there the bosses of the team were all the Spanish boys, Manolo Sanchis, Fernando Hierro, and I got on fine with them so it was never really a problem for me.
GB: I seem to remember you saying to me that when you first arrived there was nobody at the airport waiting for you. Was that right?
SM: Well I'm okay with that. I didn't tell Real Madrid when I turned up two months earlier and started looking at houses because I didn't want anyone to know. I wanted to come and find a house on my own and not deal with the press at the airport. I was due to join for pre-season in July and there were house viewings for me and my wife at the beginning of June. So I was fine with that.
GB: And was it straight away after that that your wife started working at the university?
SM: Yes she was teaching English Law to the Spanish Law students.
GB: How long did it take you to master or to speak Spanish?
SM: I went away for pre-season training for two weeks and I got stuck with Manolo Canaval who didn't speak a word of English and I don't speak any Spanish and I'm rooming with him. So I sort of started learning straight away. When you're isolated with people who don't speak English you just have to start learning. Every away game on the plane I would sit there with a Spanish book. The first thing you learn is things like pass the ball, close down, I'm here, sayings in football and then you start learning afterwards. We didn't have many English speaking players in the team, no interpreters like they do now. It was hard at the time but it makes you learn as soon as possible.
GB: During your time at Madrid, you had as coaches, Gus Hiddink, John Toshack, Vicente del Bosque and Carlos Queiroz?
SM: I signed [in January 1999] and the coach then was Gus Hiddink, but by the time I had officially joined, he was gone. I really only had John Toshack for the first couple of months and then Del Bosque, then Carlos Queiroz.
GB: What did you take from them?
SM: John Toshack did a lot of Liverpool things, a lot of Liverpool warm ups, so I knew a lot of the exercises and of course he spoke in English. Del Bosque was a completely different character, very quiet but got on very well with the team, made the team play, kept them happy, trusted everybody and was very successful. Carlos Queiroz, I didn't really take anything from because I didn't really work with him. And it was weird because Vicente del Bosque get relieved of his job and then Real Madrid, the biggest team in the world, bring in Manchester United's number two. That's just strange; it wouldn't happen now, would it.
GB: Weren't you close to signing for Barcelona? Didn't you travel to Barcelona?
SM: In 96 they made an offer with Liverpool and Liverpool refused it. We spoke on the phone but we didn't get any closer than that.
GB: There was another era right through the middle of it where they looked like they wanted to sell you? But you kept fighting back?
SM: That was the end of the first year. We'd just won the Champions League and the new President came in and brought Luis [Figo] in. I think he wanted to try to sell me and Fernando Redondo and there was a lot of confusion, people didn't know what was going on. The last game we'd had was the Champions League final and we'd all played very well. Suddenly, he wanted people to leave so we didn't know what it was. Every time I spoke to the president he said everything was fine. The manager said don't worry about it and there wasn't any way I was going to go to a team that I didn't want to but as you know there is a hell of a lot of politics in Spanish football. It's not like English football.
GB: Part of your success was that you adapted, you understood the game, well became a different type of player? What was the process, what did Del Bosque tell you to do and how did it work?
SM: Well he didn't tell us to do that much to be honest, He knew that he had great players and if someone is in a better position than you and the movement is there, it's all about being very unselfish. In football if someone is in a better position than you, then you give them the ball and if you're in a better position then you expect them to give you the ball and I think that's all it is. I think maybe at Liverpool, I was good at running or dribbling and beating people but at Real Madrid you didn't have to run and beat three or four men because there were people in front of you like Raul in the early stages or Roberto Carlos overlapping so if they were in a better position you just fed them the ball. I've always thought that it's an easy thing football, being at a team like Real Madrid simplified it a bit more.
GB: Which was your favourite Galactico?
SM: I didn't have any. Luis Figo is a very good friend of mine, Zizou was when he came in but Zizou is a different character, Luis spoke English so I was very friendly with him, Zizu was quite, spoke French and Italian. Ronaldo came in, a huge character, larger than life, so I didn't have any favourites. I thought they were all brilliant footballers, but that Galacticos thing was a load of absolute garbage. You can't tell me that Roberto Carlos and Raul who won the Champions League in 98 and 2000 are not Galacticos. It was just a ridiculous statement that was thought up by idiots.
GB: You were there for the infamous pig's head game when Figo played at Barcelona? What was that like?
SM: It was disgusting! I've never seen anything like it in my life in football. I came from England which is very hostile and very volatile but if anything like that happened you would be sanctioned and you would be penalised very, very strongly. We used to have everything throw at us in Spain; from stones to bricks. The police would be cruising alongside the coach from the hotel to the stadium, culminating in that game which was just disgusting. When your own player can't take a corner for fear of getting hit by bottles or golf balls and whisky bottles and mobile phones, it's quite surreal. Me, as an Englishman, just didn't expect it to happen, not at a football match. I get the passion, I get the fact that players have left one club and it's very hard for people but I thought the level of vitriol was absolutely astonishing.
GB: You've never seen anything like it in England?
GB: And if I'm not mistaken, they didn't even get penalised.
SM: You get fined 8,000 euros or whatever. A paltry fine these teams get for breaking the law. It's crazy!
GB: You said Zidane was very quiet. Did you picture him being a head coach?
SM: People said they thought he would fail. I think he is the perfect coach for Real Madrid, he doesn't want to argue with the President as in come out and speak about this and that, he's very much like a Del Bosque type of character, nice and quiet, keeps the players happy, keeps them ticking along. Look, the Real Madrid players are so good, like the Barcelona players, that they should win virtually every single game and as long as you keep them happy and fit and keep them on the pitch, I think he is the perfect manager for Real Madrid, I really do. Real Madrid do not need big, abrasive characters.
The players are the stars, the manager just has to come in, like Carlo (Ancelotti) did, keep his counsel, say as little as possible, and get the players happy and get the players playing. Nine times out of ten they will succeed because their 11 players will be better than the opposition's 11 players. They've gone all around the world trying to find all these managers and I hope that they now put in a plan like Liverpool did in the 70s and 80s with proper succession. Zizou is there now and Santi is at Castilla learning the job and Guti is learning the job with the Under 18s and I hope they go back to that type of player where they bring in managers who know Real Madrid inside and out, know what the passsion is like, know how to manage, and I think it's brilliant.
GB: You obviously know that you won eight trophies and played in 11 finals in four years but if you had to choose one moment, do you have any picture in your house with just one moment?
SM: Above anything, lifting a trophy is the most important thing. That's the reason you get involved in football. It's not scoring at the Camp Nou because if we had lost that day, it would have meant nothing to me. The most important thing is winning. I remember the Spanish boys celebrating after winning in the Camp Nou in the semi final and they were going crazy like they had won the trophy and I couldn't really get the gist of it because of course I am from England, but I did know what it meant to them.
The most important thing is lifting the trophy, the white shirt to be successful. I went over there because I'd never played in the Champions League at Liverpool and it was my first year in the CL and we won it. There was a lot of personal things going on in my life. My mother had passed away when I left and my father was there with his friends and all my mates in Paris so that will be the stand out moment because it was the first year. They had won nothing the year before. There was a little bit of turmoil, a new manager came in and we clicked into a really good team with a great atmosphere.
GB: The days before a Clasico, the days after it does it compare with anything at all perhaps the Liverpool v Manchester United game?
SM: No not at all, because the Clasico is everything in Spain. Liverpool v Manchester United isn't even a derby game. When you live in the City people want to talk about the Liverpool v Everton game. I lived in Madrid and when you go for some petrol, they would be talking about the Clasico even though it was three weeks away. You'd have a game Saturday and then a game the following Saturday and they were still talking about it then. So no, nothing compares to it. It's so big. Certainly nowadays those six points in the Clasicos mean so much.
If you win two of them you have got a huge advantage in winning the league. If you look at it now, if Madrid win at the Camp Nou they could be seven points clear and that's a hell of a lot to make up. We put more focus on it already because we think there's only two teams in Spain at the minute. Of course, Sevilla are doing well this year although Atletico are struggling a bit. This season it will mean a lot between these two teams. Of course, with Madrid going there last year and winning and with Real winning at Atletico the other day there is a huge amount of pressure certainly on Luis Enrique if they start the game four points behind.
GB: How do you see the game panning out?
If they have their strongest side I think Barcelona will play the only way that Barcelona can. I don't think Luis Enrique has any special tricks up his sleeve because if he plays Neymar, Messi and Suarez they will play a certain way and there's nothing they can do. They just have to play a certain way, whereas Zidane showed his technical ability and changed his team around without Gareth Bale and of course he will be a big miss. I think Barcelona will start favourites because they are at home and with 100,000 fans behind them but Zizou went there last year and did it and they will be hard to beat. They won't be as gung-ho as they have been in the past thinking they only have to turn up to win the game. Barcelona will have to play well to beat them.