The life and career of football’s silent assassin – Will he be remembered as a technical God, the ultimate playmaker? Or will his career forever be clouded by the head-butt to Marco Materazzi in a World Cup Final? I very much doubt that it will be the latter.
He had skill and technical ability which were out of the ordinary. He had the eye to create one or two pieces of skill that would make you hold your breath, and of course, he is the creator of that goal in the 2002 Champions League Final versus Bayern Leverkusen.
Zinedine Zidane was born and brought up in an under-privileged suburb in Marseille – home to mostly first and second generation immigrants. He is the son of Algerian parents who came to France in the 1950’s – a background which explains his middle name – Yazid, a name which his close friends and family call him still today.
Like many of the greats, he grew up obsessed with a ball, playing whenever possible. He grew up on the streets and left to play for AS Cannes as a teenager but credit to Zidane, he has never forgotten his roots. He funds the local football team where he grew up, A.J. Nouvelle Vague, to which he is the honorary president (Along with his brother), providing the club with shirts, balls and other equipment and more importantly, provides the kids with a structured team with proper coaches, keeping them off the streets.
After being scouted by a man called Jean Varraud, AS Cannes signed the young Zidane and made his first team debut at just 17. “Jean was probably the biggest influence of my career, he believed in me” said a reflected Zidane. At Cannes, he didn’t exactly set the world alight. Past players remember him at the age of 18 as being “not the Zidane we know today, although he had superb technique, he was also extremely weak.”
He was weak, but not weak enough to not be snapped up by Bordeaux. Zizou wasn’t to play his best football here, but he blossomed from playing with more experienced players. The club went on to win the 1995 Intertoto Cup and finished runner-up in the 1995–96 UEFA Cup in the four years he with the club. He played a set of midfield combinations which the club hugely benefitted from, alongside Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry - the trademark of both Bordeaux and the 1998 French national team. In 1995, Blackburn Rovers coach Ray Harford had expressed interest in signing both Zidane and Dugarry, to which team owner Jack Walker famously replied, “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we haveTim Sherwood?”
The man who coached Zidane, Dugarry and Lizarazu at Bordeaux was Peirrot Labat. “Because he was a player that was introvert, in fact he doubted himself all the time. It was my job to install that self-belief in him to bring out and fulfil his potential. It was the first time I really had to do it with a player.” It definitely worked. Zidane was superb that season and it became inevitable that he would move onto bigger and better things - It must have been obvious he was going to be a great – he had everything, mental strength, awareness, perfect touch, vision, constantly questioning things in order to improve, so in 1996, Juventus came knocking on the door with a suitcase full of used notes totalling £3.2m and an invitation to play in the best league in the world (at that time).
His first 6 months would prove to be a bit of a struggle, Juve’s club owner didn’t have a great deal of faith in him and neither did his team mates – resulting in Zidane playing a restricted role in the side, playing defensive midfielder. It wasn’t until he was played in a more attacking role, did he then start to become a true force to be reckoned with. He inspired ‘The Old Lady’ to successive Scudetto titles in 1997 and 1998 – provoking Platini (France and Juventus legend) to make a statement about Zidane “You [the media] will eat your words. Zidane is a playmaker, you need to start playing him in position, only then will you start to see what a player he will become”.
After the 1998 Scudetto win, Zidane was chosen to represent his country at his first World Cup in which the host nation France won. Le Bleu began strongly in the tornument, winning their first 3 games convincingly – but in their second game against Saudi Arabia, Zidane first showed his fiery temper by getting sent off after stamping on F. Amin, resulting in a 2 match ban and a blow to the hosting team’s chances of progression. France had a solid defence which were extremely hard to break down – Leboeuf, Desailly, Lizarazu, Thuram and a holding midfielder in the form of Deschamps – so France relied heavily on the goal scoring abilities of Djorkaeff and Zidane.
Desailly recalled playing with him in the tournament - “When it came to control and leading the team, he had the ability to see and analyse the situation quicker than anyone else on the field. Thanks to that, and our strong squad, he made the difference”.
After beating surprise package Croatia in the semi-finals, France made it through to the Stade de France - the first time France had reached a World Cup Final - facing the might of Brazil, with the other talk of the town, a young Ronaldo waiting to make his mark on the world’s biggest stage.
At times like that, France needed someone to stand up and be counted – to define a great player hinged on when talent meets the occasion, making the recognition to say “Yes, this guy is exceptional”. Not only did Zidane stand up, he arguably dragged Le Bleu through the game, scoring twice on the way to a 3-0 whitewash, pulling the strings and dictating play. It was the marriage of art and mental strength at the perfect time. Without Zidane, it was a team that lacked panache and balance – a positive image and instant national hero.
2 years later, Zidane and France became the second nation to ever win the World Cup then go on to win the European Championship. France had become a footballing giant, with Zidane acting as the heartbeat. He was the leader like what Platini was in the 80’s, he was irreplaceable and the best player in the world.
In the Euro final versus Italy, things didn’t exactly go to plan when Italy took the lead in the second half. Silvan Wiltord scored a dramatic equaliser in the last minute to take the game to extra time where Robert Pires tore down the left and squared for Trezeguet to smash home into the roof of the net. Although Trezeguet was the hero, Zidane’s player of the tournament award couldn’t have been more deserved. He was at his peak in 2000, the world’s best player, leader of the national team and part of the world’s best national footballing side. He could handle the pressure, scoring important goals (A sublime free-kick versus Spain in the quarter-final and then in the semi-final, running the game and scoring a stoppage time penalty against Portugal). It was probably the most beautiful summer of Zidane’s career.
At club level, his demons still festered. He was sent off for a head-butt against Hamburg – an action we will see at the biggest stage 6 years later. He had an explosive temper which the most patriotic France fan would say was “passion and frustration, something that would make him a winner.” It would also make him a loser – Luis Figo won the Balloon d’Or that year with Zidane being the runner up. My money would have been on Zidane to win it if he didn’t lash out versus Hamburg.
In 2001, he was lampooned by Real Madrid’s Club President Florentino Perez to become part of his Galacticos project, setting a world record after paying £46m to secure the Frenchman’s services. Its reported that Perez was at dinner with a large group and after realising that he was unable to speak to Zidane directly, he simply wrote on a napkin “Do you want to play for Real Madrid?” and passed it around the table to him. Zidane sent it back with an answer, in English, simply saying “Yes”.
His first season went extremely well, reaching the Champions League Final alongside Luis Figo and Real’s own prodigy, Raul. In Glasgow, Real Madrid’s own prodigy Raúl opened the scoring in the eighth minute, but, five minutes later, Brazilian defender Lúcio levelled the scores with a header that beat goalkeeper César Sánchez. In the 45th minute, one of the greatest goals in UEFA Champions League history was scored and proving his £46m worth; Zinedine Zidane received a high, arcing cross from Roberto Carlos on the edge of the penalty area, volleying a left-footed shot into the top corner – a goal fitting to win any match. In the 68th minute, César was injured and had to be replaced by 21-year-old Iker Casillas. With the young Casillas between the posts and pulling off a string of world class saves, Real Madrid managed to hold their ground against a very attacking Leverkusen side, until the final whistle, but it was Zidane’s influence and wonder-strike that would grab the headlines. “I think the strike was magnificent” said Raul. “To be there as a team-mate, so close to him when he scored was just magic.” With that win, the Galacticos project seemed set to pay off in dividends, however, it wasn’t meant to be. With the mixture of home grown players such as Pavon on small wages compared to what the likes of Zidane, Figo and Roberto Carlos were on was creating a division in the dressing room. Since winning the Champions League in 2002, the next thing won by Real was the title in 2003 – a poor return for the money invested.
There was no blame on Zidane however – in his time at the club, he was nothing short of outstanding – a pretty big thing to be top of your class which consists of Figo, Ronaldo, Beckham, Makelele and Roberto Carlos. He was named FIFA player of the year again in 2003, 5 years after first winning it whilst at Juventus.
As World and European champions, France went into the 2002 World Cup as favourites. Unfortunately, Zidane suffered a thigh injury which ruled him out of the opening game against Senegal, a famous shock result as Senegal won the game 1-0, highlighting that without their talisman, France were a shadow of their former selves. His injury forced him out of the second game against Uruguay which ended 0-0. Denmark was the must-win game for Le Bleu and an unfit and heavily bandaged Zidane was forced to play. France lost 2-0 and went home in embarrassment. They didn’t score a single goal. Although France certainly weren’t a one man team, they definitely missed the inspiration and vision.
With the aura and invincibility of France fading fast, the European Championships 2 years later was seen as an opportunity to silence critics. With a fully fit Zidane, they started well (as many Lions’ fans will recall) a free-kick along with a penalty in injury time was enough to see England off 2-1. France were not so great against Greece, losing 1-0 to the eventual surprise champions. Zidane announced his retirement from international football afterwards at the age of 32.
With France failing to find a replacement, it forced Zidane to return a year later but he announced that at the end of the 2006 World Cup would announce his retirement from all football. He was team captain and dominated the tournament which included a solo goal against Spain and a semi-final penalty which put them into the Final against Portugal.
In the final versus Italy, France were given a penalty to go 1-0 up and Zidane stepped up like he had done time and time again – taking full advantage with an audacious chip which clipped the underside of Buffon’s crossbar and crossed the line. The perfect end to an outstanding career? Unfortunately not. His head-butt against Materazzi angered the French media, it damaged the teams chances as his sending off gave Italy the upper hand at 1-1. He had not only hurt Materazzi, he had hurt the national team along with the France faithful. It was later revealed that Materazzi had said something to Zidane regarding his sister and France without their captain, went on to lose on penalties.
Like all genius’, they seem to be flawed – a category that certainly fits. Zidane was footballs’ answer to the finest ballet; elegance personified. He made the game look so easy to play. During Ronaldo’s time at Real Madrid after being at Inter, he recalls “He was from another planet. It wasn’t just what he did in a match; it was what he did in training. I remember once I saw him produce skill which put Hierro and Pavon on the floor and I just said to him ‘Teach me’. He was fantastic”
Zidane was a rare breed, an artist on the pitch and shy off of it – there was no chance of truly stopping him, a monster of football and this writers first and true footballing love.
Merci Zizou, Merci pour les souvenirs.