Real Madrid’s hard work this preseason at UCLA’s North Athletic Field, ahead of their International Champions Cup games against Manchester United in Santa Clara, California, Manchester City in Los Angeles and Barcelona in Miami, has its roots in coach Zinedine Zidane’s early days as a player at Juventus.
On arrival for preseason training for Juve back in July 1996, the still skinny 24-year-old had been warned by his France teammate Didier Deschamps, but even still Zidane was shocked at what he faced.
“Deschamps did tell me about the training sessions, but I just didn’t believe they could be as bad as all that,” Zidane has recalled.
“Often, I would be at the point of vomiting by the end, because I was so tired.”
Four years later, Zidane was a double Serie A winner, European and World footballer of the year, and France’s World Cup 1998 winning hero. He also was a much bigger, stronger man, and credited Juve’s fitness coach, Giampiero “The Marine” Ventrone, for the physical development that had helped him to deliver on his talent.
Ventrone’s right-hand man was Antonio Pintus, the same man whom Zidane called last summer when designing his first preseason as Real Madrid coach. The well-travelled Pintus had already agreed to join Lyon for 2016-17, but Blancos president Florentino Perez bought out his contract.
On replacing Rafa Benitez six months earlier, Zidane had marked improving the squad’s fitness as a priority.
“Physically we can improve, working in training,” Zidane said in January 2016. “The players are convinced too that if we all run together, it will be easier for everyone.”
Pintus’ first session in charge of the players in Montreal last July was a tough one, according to Madrid’s club statement that day: “To round off a day one session, which lasted almost two hours, the players did several circuits around the edge of the four training pitches.”
The grind continued from there, with each day’s work ending with a punishing long-distance run.
“On the first day, it’s important to get everyone back together and begin the aerobic base work,” Pintus himself told RMTV from Montreal, over video of the players — and Zidane himself — sweating as they jogged past the camera. “We will increase the volume and intensity of the work a bit towards the end of the week.”
They kept up such intensity through the season. On arrival in Japan for December’s Club World Cup, the first training session involved a half-hour run without the ball. The exertions definitely paid off, as the 2016-17 campaign brought Madrid a first La Liga-European Cup double in 60 years, and they became the first side to retain the Champions Leagues in its modern expanded format.
It was obvious how Zidane’s men finished the season much stronger than in previous years, with the team scoring a remarkable number of key goals late in games. Throughout the season, the former Galactico spoke regularly about the importance of the “day-to-day work” under Pintus’ aegis, stressing that his superstars must always run just as much as less talented opponents. Having also benefitted from an intelligent rotation selection policy through the season, Ronaldo ended the campaign with 16 goals in his last 10 games.
A Torino fan and competitive athlete at 800 and 1,500 metres in his younger days, Pintus did his academic thesis at Rome’s Istituto Superiore di Educazione Fisica on the modern marathon. His emphasis on long-distance running has seen him gain the reputation as “El Latigo” (“The Whip”) in Spain, and it is strikingly different from more currently fashionable methods of physical preparation within football.
The modern tendency has been toward “periodization,” in which every training drill is done within a potential game situation. This comes from the philosophy laid down by Portuguese guru Victor Frade and followed by among others ex-Madrid and current Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho.
“There are different methodologies in different countries,” Pintus told Lyon’s club site during his few weeks there last summer. “I’ve worked in Italy, England and France. I had the chance to learn everywhere I went. Work with the ball is obviously important, but also work in prevention, preparation and reaction.”
You cannot argue with the results. Pintus has now won 16 trophies with clubs in five different countries, including, but not limited to, the Champions League, UEFA Cup, La Liga, Serie A and FA Cup. He has worked with legendary coaches Giovanni Trapattoni, Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi. And a striking number of former players have called upon him years later.
Pintus parted with Ventrone in 1998, leaving for Chelsea when ex-Juve Gianluca Vialli became Blues manager. Even though he was reportedly nicknamed “The Sadist” by shocked players at Stamford Bridge, Gianfranco Zola called him when he took over West Ham, and Gustavo Poyet did the same at Sunderland. Deschamps hired him for Monaco and Marseille, as well as taking him back to Juve in 2006-07. Recollections of celebrating trophies have presumably trumped those of preseason vomiting in these stars’ memories.
The methods have not changed this year. The official club report of Madrid’s first day’s work at UCLA on July 12 mentioned “running drills,” while Marca’s on-site report was headlined: “The holidays are over — Pintus gets out the whip.”
“I like to run, but I cannot play football,” said Pintus during his time at Marseille. “Technique makes the difference, in my opinion. But if you have two champion teams at the same technical level, the one who runs faster will be the best. Talent is the base.
“You are born a champion. The problem is to keep this condition as long as possible. And that is just a question of work.”
Zidane clearly believes in this, and the Madrid players are going to be running a lot in the L.A. heat this summer. But the results are pretty clear: The method is working.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan