The mercurial, gifted and at times volatile Frenchman sat at the top of world football for a generation, dazzling not only Serie A but also the world stage in what was a glorious 18-year career. Zinedine Zidane ended his career with an explosive head-butt on Italy’s own Marco Materazzi, but bar that and a few other impulsive moments, the Juventus legend will be remembered for his sheer genius of which his footballing manner and quality was a total joy to behold.
His illustrious career started in the South East of France where the diminutive club of Cannes gave the 16-year-old midfielder the platform to showcase his immense talents. Four years at the small French outfit ended with a move to Bordeaux which saw the club transformed thanks to the likes of Christophe Dugarry and Zidane, as they finished runners-up in the 1995/96 UEFA Cup and progressed in Ligue 1, with Zidane being named the Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 1996. It was this form that convinced Old Lady Coach, Marcello Lippi to promptly part with £3 million to bring the rising star to Turin.
The Bianconeri were heading into the 1996/97 season on the back of a glorious campaign that had brought the UEFA Champions League and a close run second placed finish in Serie A. Zidane’s first season was to be a similar story to this as Lippi’s men conquered domestic success but were soundly beaten in the Champions League final by Borussia Dortmund. Zidane was already showcasing the kind of talent of a world beater and another impressive season saw him guide Juve to yet another Scudetto and yet another defeat in the final of Europe’s most prestigious competition, this time at the hands of Real Madrid.
By this time the French maestro was firmly establishing himself as the world’s best player. It became official when he claimed the 1998 Ballon d’Or, along with other individual accolades such as FIFA World Player of the Year, French Player of the Year and Champions League Best Midfielder as the world sat up to recognize the unbelievable talent before them.
By the time the 1998 FIFA World Cup came about the footballing world was talking about Zidane inspiring the home nation to the ultimate glory. And so it would eventually prove. An inexplicable stomping incident saw Zidane miss two games in the tournament in what was turning into a pretty horrendous tournament for the French stalwart, before eventually coming good in the final with two headed goals to dispatch of reigning champions Brazil. It was to be Zidane’s finest hour with few in doubt that the world’s best player’s goals had rather fittingly captured the world title.
Zidane’s final few seasons saw no further major glory with runners-up the best Lippi’s Juve could muster. Some argue his form had dipped immensely following his turbulent World Cup with Zidane suffering a crisis of confidence somewhat in the ensuing couple of seasons. His telepathic communication with Bianconeri legend Alessandro Del Piero was not what it had been and Zidane’s influence seemed to be fading. On too many occasions he seemed to go missing and his moments of class and inspiration were too few and far between. Perhaps his golden years had already passed, but in his mid-twenties he should have been in his prime. And so it proved. He recovered from his apparent dip to inspire France to yet more glory – this time at Euro 2000. He scored crucial goals late on in the tournament, netting in the quarter-final win over Spain and showing nerves of steel with a 117th minute winning penalty in the semi-final win over Portugal. His performance in the final, against the nation he showcased his domestic talents, was distinctly under par but France went on to beat the Italians in the end thanks to a David Trezuguet golden goal. Zidane was named the tournament’s best player and it looked as though this precocious genius was back to its best.
Zidane’s best season on the peninsula followed and despite finishing the season trophyless, the Old Lady was the envy of Europe’s most prestigious clubs as the top dogs had their eyes firmly planted on the world’s undisputed best. The summer of 2001 was to be the curtain call on the French playmaker’s time in Italy as Real Madrid offered the Old Lady a blank check for Zidane’s signature. The eventual transfer fee being around the £47 million mark as the Frenchman headed for sunny Madrid on a sad day for Italian football.
For no more would Italy’s top league be graced with the presence of pure footballing genius. Had there ever been a player with such physique, balance, flair and vision? Zidane was one for the footballing purists. A player who could effortlessly glide around the pitch, stroking the ball around the park with unerring ease and class whilst his strikers awaited licking their lips as Zidane planted the perfect pass into their path serving up their goal-scoring chance on a silver platter.
Zidane stood at around six-foot-one-inch and was of stocky, muscular build. However, his feet were like that of a dainty fairy as the ball glued to his feet as he toyed with the bewildered defender. The former Juve man even had a turn named after himself, in which his close control and quick feet were showcased as he dragged the ball one way and then the other whilst spinning the defenders – see the 43 second mark for several great examples of this.
The Frenchman was almost always deployed behind the strikers or striker and his partnership with Del Piero during his time at the Bianconeri was on the whole pretty devastating. Filippo Inzaghi enjoyed much success in having two of the greatest playmakers in Serie A history to play in front of.
Zidane’s playing career on leaving Italy is best described as turbulent. Zidane was part of the Galacticos side and despite boasting big names such as Ronaldo, David Beckham and Luis Figo, the club endured a tumultuous era – although Zidane did leave Spain with a Champions League medal at the third time of asking as well as a La Liga winner’s medal. He was also named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2003 for a third time and won numerous more personal titles during the early 2000’s as his opening years in Spain were a categorical success – a stunning volley in the 2002 Champions League final the high point.
The 2002 World Cup was one to forget for the French as they failed to register a single goal and crashed out at the group stage. Many blamed the thigh injury that kept Zidane out of the opening two matches but even the genius himself couldn’t save the holders tattered hopes. Zidane’s continued topsy-turvy international career continued until the day he retired. The 2006 World Cup was to be his final curtain call and it was all set to be a dream finale. An ageing French side had been almost dragged into the final by the renaissance of Zidane and the fairytale looked to be complete when he scored from the spot to hand France the lead in the final. But it seemed rather fitting that it was to be against the Italians – the country he had fascinated and rendered spellbound for five unforgettable years, where he would eventually come unstuck. Italy had levelled and with the match in extra time, Zidane’s moment of madness astonished the watching world. A dispute with Materazzi led to the Algerian born Frenchman head-butting the Inter man in the chest before being promptly sent off. It was his last act as a professional footballer and he could only watch as Fabio Grosso notched the winning spot kick to put a final nail in the coffin of the finest footballer of a generation.
Whether on the world stage or back home at his old indoor training pitch, Zizou will forever be remember as the flawed genius….
Past Lessons in Calcio