By Richard Martin
LYON (Reuters) – Zinedine Zidane’s remarkable run to three consecutive Champions League finals as Real Madrid coach should be no surprise because the former midfielder “inspires success”, says his former France team mate Christian Karembeu.
Karembeu, a double European Cup winning midfielder with Real himself, won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 with France alongside Zidane. The Madrid boss is bidding to become the first coach to win the Champions League three times in a row when his side meet Liverpool on Saturday in Kiev.
“No, I’m not surprised, he inspires success,” Karembeu tells Reuters in an interview in Lyon.
“He is a hard worker, he hates to lose, he wants perfection, he wants quality and you can see Zidane’s prints on this Madrid team.
“The passing has to be good, the players have to be in the right position, you need to attack quickly, and you can see his influence on what this team does on the pitch.
“Of course, when you look at the names of the players you see the talent there but talent alone does not bring you success.”
Karembeu says Zidane did not express any great desire to be a coach when he was a player, but his experience at the highest level of the game makes him the ideal man to lead this Madrid side, which is brimming with world class players.
“He’s a former footballer with knowledge and expertise and that’s great for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric. There are so many success stories with that man, he can inspire you and he can also boost the team,” Karembeu says.
“Zidane didn’t change any players, it’s more or less the same squad as before, but with his aura, his way of thinking and approach to everyone, he has delivered something positive and successful.”
Zidane has been lauded by his players for his handling of the dressing room and keeping his cool under pressure, something he has had to do a lot this season as Real floundered in La Liga, finishing 17 points behind runaway winners Barcelona.
Madrid also put poor domestic campaigns to one side in emphatic fashion when Karembeu played for them, winning the Champions League 1997-98 after coming fourth in La Liga and lifting the trophy again in 1999-2000 after finishing fifth.
“It’s not easy to focus on three or four targets, when you are carrying yourself to one goal its easier,” says Karembeu, who was born in former French colony New Caledonia, moving to France aged 17 and making his professional debut with Nantes.
“Everyone wants to win the double or treble but it’s not easy, most players are playing more than 60 games. It’s not easy for Madrid to repeat the same performances and success, they are humans, not robots.
“But to do well in the Champions League you need a different type of commitment. Madrid have it in their DNA.”
The 1998 win over Juventus in Amsterdam was Madrid’s first European Cup win since 1966 and paved the way for another continental dynasty after winning the first five editions of the competition between 1956 and 1960. In Kiev, they will be hoping to win it for a record-extending 13 times.
“The Champions League is built for Real Madrid, they have this in their blood and the other teams are only challengers,” adds Karembeu.
“It’s been that way since the beginning. Their five wins with Alfredo Di Stefano were incredible. Then, 32 years later we brought back that atmosphere, that belief.
“32 years without winning it was a very long time, we needed to change things. We brought back the pride and success, then (club president) Florentino Perez grew the club even more, making their history even greater.”
Karembeu, who retired from football in 2006 and now works as a strategic adviser for Greek side Olympiakos Piraeus, was an outspoken political activist as a player.
He repeatedly spoke up for rights of people in New Caledonia, even convincing his Sampdoria team mates to join him in wearing T-shirts protesting against nuclear weapons testing in the region.
He also refused to sing the words of the French national anthem because France had colonised his homeland, leading him to be booed by his own supporters.
The question of whether athletes should take political stands has been fiercely debated since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a move to kneel during the United States national anthem. On Wednesday, the NFL announced it would fine players who refused to stand for the anthem.
“Athletes are told they should be role models so why can’t we be political role models for our own communities?” Karembeu says.
“I did that (refusing to sing the anthem) because I wanted people to understand where I come from. I knew the history of my people, I have lived in France and played for the national team but there are things I cannot forget.
“Athletes are human beings, the first thing we belong to is our land, our families, so we need to be true to ourselves.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)