Rafa Benitez out, Zinedine Zidane in as Real Madrid coach

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez lasted only seven months as coach of Real Madrid.

(Biel Alino / EPA)

The first major coaching change of the new year in world soccer was a surprising one, with Real Madrid sacking Rafa Benitez on Monday and replacing him with former French World Cup star Zinedine Zidane.

Benitez, the only manager in history to win a UEFA Cup, Champions League title and FIFA Club World Cup, lasted just seven months before being axed with Real Madrid mired in third place after an unimpressive first half to the La Liga season. Atletico Madrid is atop the table followed by Barcelona.

And Zidane, Real Madrid’s fourth head coach in the last 2 1/2 years, was chosen to replace him despite the fact he never coached a first-division team. Zidane’s only previous experience as a head coach has been with Real Madrid Castilla, Real Madrid’s “B” team. And that hiring also proved controversial since Zidane assumed the position in June 2014 despite the fact he hadn’t earned the requisite coaching badges.

That led to a three-month ban from Spanish soccer. Zidane eventually hired his UEFA Pro License last season.

However Zidane, 43, has a long history with Real Madrid, having spent the majority of his 17-year playing career with the club. So Monday’s promotion was an emotional one.

“I want to thank the club and the president for the opportunity to coach this club,” he said. “It’s the best club in the world with the best fan base. I will do my very best so that at the end of the season this club will have a trophy.

“It is an important day for me and an emotional day. Even more than when I signed as a player.”

Benitez, 55, who got his start as a player with Real Madrid’s B team, went on to manage iconic clubs such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Italy’s Napoli and Inter Milan during a two-decade-long coaching career. And while was given a three-year contract to return to Madrid last summer, his pragmatic approach did not chance on with a Real Madrid roster packed with superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.

Calls for Benitez’s firing began in November, after a 4-0 loss to arch-rival Barcelona. And his position probably wasn’t helped when he defended Rodriguez following a police chase last week in which the Colombian midfielder was reportedly traveling at more than 120 mph. The chase ended at the team’s training facility, with Rodriguez saying he was speeding because he was late for practice and didn’t hear the police sirens wailing behind him because he was listening to music.