Steve McManaman will forever be fondly remembered by Real Madrid and everyone associated with Los Blancos due to the Englishman’s goal in the 2000 Champions League final against Valencia, and the former Liverpool winger has given his thoughts om Los Blancos’ past and present.
Now an ambassador for LaLiga Santander, McManaman sat down with Livescore to discuss his past as a Madrid player as well as the current situation of the side which is led by his former teammate Zinedine Zidane. For Real Madrid, having won LaLiga Santander last season for the first time in several years, how feasible is it for them to do it again this year?
I think that when you look at the two sides (Real Madrid and Barcelona), Madrid have a better team. They have no stars in the team and as I said, defensively they are playing well. They are much more solid, they do not win games by a difference of five or six goals, but they do not let goals in like in the past. Many of the matches end 1-0, 2-0 and are hard fought wins. This strength they have will help them from now on and I think they will regain the title.
Is there a Real Madrid player this season you have your radar on?
I’m really excited to see Eden Hazard because he gave a lot at Chelsea – he was an exceptional player. It was a really good signing for Real Madrid and they just haven’t been at their best so far. He started without being in his best shape and has had many injuries, although he hasn’t been able to do a full pre-season. I am waiting to see him in his best state. Karim Benzema has been excellent, Marco Asensio has also been seriously injured so I am waiting to see how he has recovered since he has the whole season ahead of him, although I really hope Eden Hazard has a fabulous year.
When you played with Zinedine Zidane, did you see him with the potential to be a coach?
No, not at that time. He was an incredible player but very reserved until he learned to speak Spanish. He retired at the height of his career, lived in Madrid and thought about himself. Obviously, Real Madrid always used him as an ambassador, but being next to Carlo Ancelotti and being his number two before being appointed coach and winning what he won by with three UEFA Champions Leagues in two and a half years was something that few could’ve predicted. A lot of the players I follow, I don’t think will become coaches in the future because they just don’t want it. They don’t want that pressure on their backs working 24 hours a day and being away from their families. Although it is a highly appreciated role when things are going well, it is a very difficult job when it is not like that, so I have the greatest respect for Zinedine because there will always be a downside to some extent given that he is a fans’ favourite. To take that job, you must have really wanted to jump into that kind of role.
Do you think in the future, in 50 or 60 years, we will remember Zinedine Zidane more as a coach than a player?
Yes, absolutely. He stopped playing football ten to fifteen years ago so people who are growing up now know him as a coach. Only older people know what they accomplished as a player. The 1998 FIFA World Cup where he scored two goals in the final was a long time ago if you think about it. In 2002, when he scored the volley in the Champions League final, it was also a long time ago. People who are growing up now know only one thing, that he is an exceptional coach so in 50-60 years they will talk about him as such. It will be interesting to see how he handles himself in teams other than Real Madrid as he has lived here for a long period of time. I would like to know if he is interested in coaching PSG or the French national team or something like that.
Why did you move from the Premier League to LaLiga Santander?
It was several things, not just one. It was the fact that we weren’t good enough as a [Liverpool] team to win the league. Liverpool were going through a transitional phase themselves when Roy Evans left the club and when Gerard Houiller came as coach. I think he wanted to take the club in another direction, a little different and introduce his own players. I was reaching the end of my contract, my mother was very ill at the time and then she died, right after the last game of the season. A lot of it worried me and I think I just needed to change. And change meant, changing countries and not going to another rival of Liverpool’s. I wanted to leave and I wanted to play abroad. In the end I chose Real Madrid who at that time had just won the Champions League in 1998 and in the following year, 1999, they won the FIFA Club World Cup like Liverpool just won. It was officially the best team in the world, so it was not a difficult decision, choosing Real Madrid.
How did you get to be so popular with Real Madrid fans so fast?
I jumped right in! I was always smiling whether it helped or not. I didn’t learn the language out of necessity. I was learning the language of course, and did the best I could to learn the language. I always tried to be with the other players, if they went somewhere, I went with them, even if I couldn’t understand everything they were talking about. Sometimes I felt lonely, but I already knew it would be like this. I tried to talk to the press whenever I could. I was even trying to get involved in the culture and adapt as best as possible to that lifestyle.
Were there many differences between English and Spanish football? And do they still exist?
No, I didn’t really think it was very different at the time. Real Madrid were a really great team in LaLiga, but Liverpool were also a great team in the Premier League. The history (of Real Madrid) is very similar, the way people perceived the two clubs was very similar, the pressure to win matches was very similar due to the wonderful history of the two clubs, so it didn’t surprise me much. Real Madrid were a very fluid team, wanting to score more and more goals, very similar to the Liverpool team that I had left. The difficult thing was learning the language and traveling so much with the team, feeling quite lonely at the time. But, it was never a problem for me and it was one of the things that you have to deal with to get the best out of what you are doing.
How did you feel when Real Madrid sought to sell you?
No one at the club ever told me to be very honest. Other people told me, the agents, the people who called me. When I spoke with Florentino Perez, he never left the impression that he wanted to sell me, so it was very easy for me to carry on with the day to day. Some of the players told me, “don’t worry, nothing is going to happen, it’s just Real Madrid with a new president, trying to balance the accounts,” and things like that. That is the story that ran, but when I spoke with the management of the club, Vicente del Bosque, the coach, for example, he told me that I was not going anywhere. So, I got on with the important things honestly. I think they made much more of the story than was actually happening.
Did you ever think that you were dreaming when you shared a dressing room with the Galacticos?
No, not at all. [The Galacticos] joined a team that had just won two Champions Leagues in three years and they had never won it before, so it wasn’t really a problem for me. Luis [Figo] was very successful at Barcelona and he spoke perfect Spanish of course. When Zizou arrived, he did not speak Spanish, only French and Italian. He was a very shy and quiet person in the changing room. I only really spoke with Claude Makelele who spoke French and with Geremi from Cameroon and also spoke French. So I didn’t have that dreaming feeling at all. They were teammates and friends. They all wanted to win the same tournaments and trophies.
What would be your recommendation towards an English player who comes to LaLiga Santander?
I think it is very important to try to learn the language and get involved in the culture. Get involved in what makes a particular team great and what makes a good lifestyle. Get fully into the culture.
Gareth Bale’s moment at Real Madrid is over. How would you summarize his stay at the club and do you think he will excel at Tottenham now?
His contribution to Real Madrid was exceptional, wasn’t it? Actually, in his early days, he scored goals in important finals. He scored in each of the finals and won all those Champions Leagues. I was at the stadium when he scored that goal against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final. He has been an impressive figure for Real Madrid and LaLiga Santander. As a player he is truly exceptional and I sincerely hope that he is a superstar at Tottenham, I really hope so.
I think he will contribute a lot because he hasn’t lost any of his qualities. I know he has had some injuries at Real Madrid, but they have not been long term. I think he will be prepared, he has a lot to show. I think he’s a great signing for Tottenham. When you think of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, and then add Gareth Bale to the mix, it automatically raises the XI to another level. If he stays in shape and plays 40 or 50 games for Tottenham he will surely score 20 goals and those are figures that cannot be bought with money. The fact that Tottenham reached this amazing deal to take the Welshman is a brilliant deal. If he shows his best level, he will take Tottenham to another level in the Premier League and other competitions this season.
I definitely think it can help Tottenham to qualify for the Champions League this season. When you look at the Premier League this year – is there a better team than Arsenal? They are not worse than Arsenal. Are they better than Manchester United? For me, yes, we are seeing the way they are playing. I think what Mourinho is doing is working, with the players he has brought to the team and those he has let go. He has time to focus. He will definitely have a stronger defence physically and mentally. As I said, if Gareth stays fit, Tottenham will qualify for the Champions League.