Having retired in 2006 with no public desire to become a coach, it was assumed Zinedine Zidane was ready for civilian life with his wife and four sons.
But the “smell of the grass” lingered in his nostrils, explains ex-Real Madrid star Kaka. “He told me one day that when he stopped playing he didn’t want to be a coach," he said.
“He just wanted to stay with his family, enjoy life a little bit and travel around. And after two or three years he missed the field, the smell of the grass and he thought ‘no, maybe it’s time to get back’.”
In 2009, Zidane returned to Real Madrid, where he had spent five years as a player. He took an advisory role offered by club president Florentino Perez, one of several posts held in preparation for the Santiago Bernabeu hotseat.
Zidane worked his way through the ranks for seven more years. He was “special advisor” under Jose Mourinho, he was sporting director, assistant and eventually Castilla coach before landing the top job as Perez’s answer to Pep Guardiola.
Sergio Ramos, James Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo – big players with big personalities – were resentful of Benitez and unwilling to take his instructions.
But under Zidane, there’s an undeniable sense of unity in the squad. It’s the kind of alchemy required to get a club like Real Madrid performing to its potential.
Zidane has qualities Benitez doesn’t, despite his decades of experience. Zidane had genuine pedigree as a player, his communication is precise and composed.
Madrid came very close to overhauling a Barcelona side who at one stage looked well in the clear for La Liga last season.
Although they won the Champions League on penalties, a chorus of “yeah, but” followed them due to the poverty of opponents they faced in the knockouts.
The sceptics said that Madrid, for all their individual quality, had got somewhat lucky along the way.
When questioned earlier this season if he felt he was a “lucky” coach, Zidane replied that of course he felt lucky to work at a club such as Real Madrid.
That ability to defuse, rather than ignite, is a quality loved within a club as overexposed as Real Madrid.
Gone are any comparisons to Roberto Di Matteo, sacked a few months on from winning the Champions League, Zidane is now in Brian Clough and Arrigo Sacchi territory having won a second European title in a row against Juventus in Cardiff.
“Zidane, I would say, is comparable to Carlo Ancelotti or Vicente del Bosque,” said ex-Madrid goalkeeper Bodo Illgner. “He is a coach who makes the best out of what he’s got.
“Young players have huge respect for him as he has this aura as a former world class player. Stars like Ronaldo respect him as he can talk eye to eye with them which wasn't the case with Benitez. Furthermore, his calm and circumspect character is very helpful as well."
The spell Zidane had as Ancelotti’s assistant during Madrid’s Decima season was critical for the burgeoning coach. Zidane learned from Ancelotti – and Marcello Lippi before him at Juventus – that football is primarily about talent. The team with the bigger share of it in their ranks should win any given match.
Whether working with proven greats like Ronaldo or prodigious talents like Marco Asensio, Zidane has been able to amplify his players’ strengths while masking their weaknesses, all the while keeping balance in the team.
He has a sharp football mind, honed from decades playing in some of the world’s best teams for the world’s best coaches. He knows what makes teams tick but, crucially, he knows what makes big players tick too.
“He is a coach who is very close to the players,” Real winger Lucas Vazquez said. “He’s friendly and helps the players. He is always looking how to make the players happy and comfortable.”
For Saturday’s Champions League final, in which Real Madrid won 4-1, perhaps Zidane took another page out of Ancelotti’s playbook.
In 2014, the coach showed a motivational video to the players before they took on Atletico in Lisbon. Last year Zidane showed them one of their own to illustrate their unity, their skill and their determination as a group.
He has made subtle-yet-stinging tweaks to his Madrid systems throughout his reign. Equilibrium was needed in midfield so Isco and James Rodriguez saw their starts commuted. Casemiro, a goalscorer in this year's final, was brought in.
That move gave Toni Kroos the platform he needed in midfield to exert more influence in possession. Gareth Bale’s injury has permitted Isco to come back into the team as an orthodox playmaker. The Spaniard has excelled in recent weeks, not least in the semi-final first-leg against Atletico.
That performance owed much to Ronaldo’s outstanding finishing. Zidane’s greatest accomplishment might well be his management of the multi-Ballon d’Or winner.
Ronaldo’s personality is such that every game is reckoned to be an opportunity for more individual glory. Zidane has persuaded Ronaldo that some goals mean more than others and some months mean more than others too. With sufficient rest, he’s got his iconic No.7 to peak at the end of the season.
That’s just one example of how focused Zidane is on physical preparation. He hired fitness coach Antonio Pintus, who was at Juventus when Zidane was a player, from Lyon last summer to ensure Madrid would arrive at the decisive part of the season in the best possible condition.
There's such an assurance about Real Madrid now and so many of their matches look a doddle. It’s tempting to conclude that any old mug could stick 11 of their players out on to the field and see it work.
A Champions League-winning La Liga veteran wasn't able to get the job done at the Santiago Bernabeu, widely regarded as one of the most difficult dressing rooms in world football.
Zidane, with the ink barely dry on his UEFA Pro Licence, has already won both of those titles.
He’s making the difficult seem easy and the grace with which he played his football translates perfectly into how he manages his team.
With every day, Zizou is no longer regarded as a fortunate son. Real's European win over Juventus showed he's the very source of their recent success.
By Peter Staunton. Additional reporting by Ives Galarcep, Alberto Piñero & Niklas König