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FOOTBALL

Zidane: ‘I returned because the president called me. I love him and I love this club, so here I am.’

Zinedine Zidane said he never had any doubts about returning to Real Madrid after he replaced the sacked Santiago Solari as coach on Monday.

Zidane: 'I returned because the president called me. I love him and I love this club, so here I am.'
Zinedine Zidane announced his return in a press conference at Real Madrid on Monday. Photo: AFP

“When the president called me the first thing I thought was: go,” Zidane said at a press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu. “I could not say no, I never had any doubts about going back.”

Zidane has been given a contract until June 2022, just nine months after he resigned at the end of last season, having led Madrid to an historic third consecutive Champions League triumph. 

READ MORE: Zinédine Zidane set to make shock return as Real Madrid manager

Solari's dismissal was expected after three consecutive home defeats – to Barcelona, twice, and Ajax – deemed Madrid's season all-but over before the middle of March. 

But Zidane coming back, with only 11 games left in La Liga and almost nothing to play for, is a surprise, particularly after he left on the incredible high of yet another European triumph. 

“I left because a change was needed at the end of last season, for the good of everyone, after winning so much,” Zidane said.    

“I returned because the president called me. I love him and I love this club, so here I am.” 

Zidane inherits a squad that has evolved even in the short time he has been away, with Cristiano Ronaldo gone and the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Vinicius Junior and Sergio Reguilon all enjoying greater prominence this season.    

The challenge will be for Zidane to oversee a period of change in the summer, when older players could be replaced and younger talents brought through. 

“I do not want to forget what we won but I also do not forget all the things we did badly last year,” Zidane said.    

“We lost in the league and cup, we won the Champions League, fine, but I know where I am. 

“We will change things, for sure, for the years to come. But now is not about that – the important thing is I am back. We will have time to talk with the president, with the club, about what we can do.” 

Bale question   

Immensely popular with most of the players, Zidane's appointment will almost certainly lift morale in the dressing room, following a week in which Sergio Ramos has argued with the club's president Florentino Perez and been involved in a spat with Marcelo. 

Gareth Bale was one of the few to suffer during Zidane's previous spell in charge, with the pair barely on speaking terms in the run-up to the Champions League final. 

Bale's future now appears in serious doubt unless their relationship can be quickly repaired.  

Instead it was Ronaldo that departed and Zidane now takes over a team missing the Portuguese's goals and in need of reform.    

On the possibility of Ronaldo following him back to Madrid, Zidane said: “That is not the issue for today. We have 11 games to play, then we will see. We all know Cristiano, his history at this club is one of the best. But today is not for talking about these things.”

Despite Madrid's dominance in the Champions League, there is ground to make up in La Liga, where Barcelona are on course to seal their eighth league title in 11 years. 

Madrid sit 12 points adrift of them in the table despite a 4-1 victory over Real Valladolid on Sunday, which proved to be Solari's final game in charge.    

Familiar problems, including a lack of goals and a leaky defence, resurfaced in February as a defeat at home to Girona was quickly followed by losses to Barcelona in the league and cup, and humiliation by Ajax in the last 16 of the Champions League. 

“I do not blame anybody,” Zidane added. “(Julen) Lopetegui and Solari wanted to do the best for the club. It went how it went. The only thing now is to look forward.” 

By AFP's Thomas Allnutt

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FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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