By Iain Rogers
Real Madrid have sacked coach Rafa Benitez after less than half a season in charge and promoted their former France great Zinedine Zidane from the B team to replace him, president Florentino Perez said on Monday.
Perez announced the dismissal of the experienced Benitez, who had a contract until June 2018, following a board meeting and Zidane was present at the president’s news conference at the Bernabeu stadium.
“Firstly I would like to thank the club and the president for giving me the chance to coach this team,” Zidane, known as “Zizou” and a hero to Real’s fans, told reporters.
“What we need to do now, and what I will try to do, is try to do my best so that this team is a winner at the end of the season,” added the 43-year-old, one of the club’s youngest-ever coaches.
“The important thing is to be with the team tomorrow and start work,” he said.
“I will put all the heart I have into the job for this club and try to make sure things work out well.”
Real did not immediately specify the length of Zidane’s contract.
He is the 11th coach Perez has installed during two terms in charge and it will be the former France captain’s first top-flight management job.
He played for Real for five seasons after joining from Juventus in August 2001 and helped them win their ninth European crown with a stunning volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final.
Perez, who has publicly backed Benitez in recent weeks, said it had been a difficult decision to sack him.
He said Zidane had always tackled the biggest challenges in soccer with “talent and dedication” and noted that the Frenchman knew many of the players well from his role as assistant coach under Benitez’s predecessor Carlo Ancelotti.
“You have all our confidence and support so our fans can be excited and entertained in every match,” Perez told Zidane, who won the World Cup and European Championship as a player.
He retired from international football after the 2006 World Cup, having been sent off in the final for headbutting Italy defender Marco Materazzi. France lost on penalties.
Benitez, a former Valencia, Liverpool, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Napoli manager who began his coaching career in Real’s youth ranks, replaced Ancelotti after the Italian was sacked in June.
Real have failed to find the level of consistency Perez demands, however, and there have been widespread reports Benitez does not get on with some of Real’s key players like Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez.
Disgruntled fans have been whistling Benitez at the Bernabeu in recent months and he also appears to have been blamed for Real’s expulsion from the King’s Cup last month for fielding an ineligible player.
Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Valencia, when Real twice surrendered the lead, left them third in the standings, four points behind leaders Atletico Madrid and two behind champions Barcelona, who have a game in hand.
Real’s biggest failure this season was a stinging 4-0 home loss to arch-rivals Barca in November, although they did qualify for the Champions League last 16 as group winners.
Their next outing is a La Liga game at home to Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday and they have been drawn to play AS Roma in Europe’s elite club competition, with the first leg in the Italian capital on Feb. 17.