FFT hasn’t even finished our question about Zinedine Zidane’s standing in the pantheon of Real Madrid’s all-time greats when Christian Karembeu interjects. “It’s not if he will win tonight,” the Frenchman declares, before slapping the table with a chuckle.
Such confidence is hardly misplaced, mind: Zidane the Manager stands on the verge of winning a third straight Champions League title in as many seasons of senior management, having made the seemingly impossible look impossibly easy so far. The last team to win this competition three seasons on the spin were Bayern Munich, 42 years ago.
In 1998, Karembeu was part of the Madrid team that triumphed in the Champions League for the first time since 1966 – against Zidane’s Juventus, no less. In 2000 he did it again, only this time watching on from the bench as los Blancos strolled to a 3-0 win over Valencia. There’s a lot to discuss with the Frenchman as we take a seat at Heineken's 'City of Champions' event in Athens...
In the 1998 Champions League final… we weren't the favourites, we were the challengers. Juve were the favourites and we knew that we needed to upgrade our level to go against them and win. The thing is, before that we played Dortmund and Leverkusen, and Dortmund were champions at the time. By beating them we got some confidence and trust between us to achieve something Madrid had been expecting for 32 years. We climbed our Kilimanjaro and we won. There was only one goal [scored by Predrag Mijatovic], but it was crucial and we got the Séptima.
I played against Zinedine Zidane that day… and also Didier Deschamps. I knew him, of course; I knew his skills, and tried to anticipate all of his movements. In one moment I tried to take the ball from him, we fell down together and he was thinking that someone else had done it to him. I said, ‘It’s me!’... so he looked at me, got up and everything was OK…
To win the Champions League… first of all, you need organisation; structure inside the club. A good manager, good players. Then you need to give them the conditions to perform well. At Real Madrid there is a culture of victory – and when you get to the final that’s all you’re thinking about.
We only finished fourth in La Liga season… I won the Champions League twice with Real Madrid but never the title at that time. It’s not easy to play in many, many competitions – World Cups, Super Cups, La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League. With all of those you can have maybe 60 games every year, and you’re expected to deliver the same performances.
My career became more difficult after 1998… because we won the Champions League, and everybody wanted to be there after that. There was more competition in the squad so the manager had to decide between players, but that’s normal. You need to be competitive in sport. It meant the bench was very rich; we had many players who could come to play well. But this is a big club, and you see it everywhere: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City.
I actually told Madrid to take Steve McManaman quickly… It wasn't his fault I didn't play! He’s a good friend of mine. I was very happy that he could sign, and proud [for him] because later Michael Owen came, Jonathan Woodgate came. He helped English players come to Spain, when before they went to Italy. But they came because of Macca. Now there is also Gareth Bale, and before that David Beckham.
I missed out on the 2000 final.. and that was a little bit strange. It was in my city (Paris) and I was thinking I’d get in because I'd played well, and others were injured. But in the end, the manager [Vicente del Bosque] decided to choose another team and I had to respect that. As I said to my team-mates, ‘We all play in the same and competition and we need to be one’. They did a great job and were champions. You need that good relationship in the dressing room.
Zinedine Zidane is… just a cool guy; a family man; very humble. He started with the kids in Madrid, and after that worked his way up. I never thought he would become a manager when he was playing, but after that when he started to tell us that he would like to do the job… quickly he went to school to get his coaching badges and started to take on some responsibilities at Real Madrid. With the Cantera he learned some basics to be ready for the first team.
I think this has made him a success. You saw it with Pep Guardiola who started at La Masia, then took on Barcelona and succeeded. There is no model for success – it’s the way you improve yourself to be better and better. That’s what he is doing; trying to learn and to be better every year. He is the kind of man who wants it. He is a bad loser; he only wants victory. He wants only success for his team-mates, for himself and for the club. So while he is cool, he tries to make his players work and follow the pathway where he wants them to be.
The game tonight… will be very competitive and attractive. There is so much speed and goals in both teams; Mo Salah has scored over 40 with Liverpool this season; then there is Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, who have had a lot of consistency. For Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is trying to break his own record of goals in a Champions League season. I think there will be a lot of goals, but in the end experience will make the difference.
City of Champions is an immersive UEFA Champions League Final experience brought to fans by Heineken. Athens is famous for its rich history as a stage for memorable moments and heroism, and a fitting location as the host destination of Heineken’s City of Champions for 2018. Heineken believes that every UEFA Champions League match delivers the same drama and emotion as a blockbuster film, written live by the best players in the world - and deserves to be shared among friends, over a Heineken.
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