Zinedine Zidane, the monk-like fantasista – heir to Platini’s throne as France’s greatest ever player, is also widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Maybe slightly overrated in some quarters when labelled with the ‘Greatest Ever’ tag, his achievements and trophy haul are certainly second to very few. For a time he was also the most expensive player in the world, costing Real Madrid a huge £46m. During his playing days Zidane became one of world football’s true superstars, and much loved players – his global fan base was (and nevertheless is) exceptional. From Europe, to North Africa (the origin of his roots) and the Middle East, to Japan – Zidane, was the man.
Zidane was born to Algerian immigrants who firstly moved to Paris, but ultimately settled in La Castellane – a suburb with a huge North African community in France’s southern town of Marseille. It was here that Yazid Zidane was born in 1972. Yazid, his birth name, is what he was known by to his friends and family. The young Yazid looked to replicate his idol; Olympic Marseille’s very own fantasista, Uruguayan Enzo Franchescoli, by teaching himself tricks and repetitively juggling a football until he was better than most of the boys in the area. In a neighbourhood high in crime rate Zidane had to become tough, though this was mostly focused by Judo – something else he showed an early talent for. But it was football that won the youngsters heart. After school he would gather with the other boys from his tower block, in ‘Place Tartane’ – an 80 x 12 yard clearing in the middle of the housing complicate, which served as a makeshift football pitch. By 13 years old his talent was such that he was spotted by a scout for Cannes who proclaimed: ‘I’ve found a boy who has hands where his feet should be’. After initial scepticism he was allowed to join the club’s ‘centre de formation’, leaving home and his family in the time of action to lodge with a club director’s family.
By 16 years old he was making his league debut versus Nantes. Then, playing the same opponents two years on, he scored his first senior league goal in a 2-1 win. Remembering the potential he made the young Zidane upon scoring his debut goal, the president rewarded him with a brand new Renault Clio. Unfortunately for the 20 year old Zizou, the Va Va Voom factor wore off pretty quick as Cannes were relegated the very next season. His skills didn’t go unnoticed however and with an offer coming in from Bordeaux, Zidane moved South for approximately £300k, where he would be reunited with his junior international team mate and close friend Christophe Dugarry. They formed part of an exciting new team that made groups in Europe in addition as at home, winning the Intertoto Cup in 1995 and finishing runners-up in the UEFA Cup. It was during this period he also made his national team debut in 1994, coming off the bench whilst France were 2-0 down against the Czech Republic, and scoring twice. The press went wild – the new Platini had arrived. People outside of France were now beginning to take notice of Zidane’s attributes. The then Premiership Champions Blackburn Rovers coach Ray Harford expressed an interest in the midfielder, only for Blackburn’s owner Jack Walker to refuse, famously stating: ‘Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?’
Zizou was a relative late bloomer on the world stage. He was already aged 24 when gaining his first major move – Juventus paying a modest £3.2m in 1996 to take him from the Bordeaux side that had starred (particularly against AC Milan) in the past seasons UEFA Cup. Juve had chosen to break him up before the summer’s Euro’96 competition in case of any value increase. But after his poor, lacklustre performances during the tournament, they probably saw their new commodity depreciate in value – leading Juventus president Gianni Agnelli to cuttingly remark: ‘is the real Zidane the one I’ve heard so much about, or the one I’ve been watching?’ To be fair to Zidane, he had just completed a huge 65-match season. Then on the eve of the Euros, he suffered a car crash. His arrival in Turin signalled more ‘new Platini’ comparisons. But after a difficult period of adjustment to the new league, murmurs of disappointment could be heard throughout the Juve faithful, leading Zidane to announce: ‘I’m Zinedine Zidane and it’s important that the fans understand that I can never be Platini, on or off the pitch.’ He was right. Zidane was a totally different character to the former Juventus number 10, and what’s more that shirt at Juve now belonged to Del Piero. Zidane’s squad number at La Vecchia Signora was 21 – an alien number to a fantasista, however after the frosty start in Turin his performances started to resemble a true fantasista. With winning goals against championship rivals Inter, and by helping Juve obtain their second Intercontinental Cup in November versus River Plate, Zidane silenced his doubters. The win was made already sweeter for Zidane as he faced his teenage idol, Enzo Francescoli. The Uruguayan fantasista was ending his career back at the club where he had shot to fame. For Zidane, life couldn’t get any better.
Only it could.
That trophy was the first major of his senior career and sparked a exceptional winning period which would see him collect nearly every major trophy the sport had to offer during an incredible career. His stay at the Turin giants saw him win the Scudetto twice, a UEFA Supercup and another Intertoto Cup. During the same period with France he collected the 1998 World Cup and then followed it up with the European Championship in 2000. The only major trophy which evaded him was the Champions League. He had finished runner-up twice with Juve and now it seemed like his Holy Grail. It was probably a major factor in his decision to leave Juventus in the summer of 2001, when Real Madrid came calling and splashed out a whopping £47m for his sets. The Real president Florentino Perez was embarking on his first galactico project, signing the best players in the world. And at this time, nobody was better than Zidane, having also picked up the greatest accolades any individual player could win – the Ballon d’Or in 1998, and World Player of the Year in that same year, whilst also collecting it in 2000. In 1996 when he arrived at Juventus he may have been labelled as an inferior form to the great Platini, but in 2001 he was leaving having certainly surpassed him.
In Spain, Zidane won the watching Bernabeau faithful over immediately. They adored his velvet touch and moment control. His expert over the ball reminded their older followers of their glorious players from the past – not least their greatest ever player, Alfredo Di Stefano, who’s number 5 shirt Zidane now wore (the number 10 shirt was taken by Real’s first galactico, Luis Figo). The similarity would be greatly enhanced by the end of that season, when Zidane inspired Madrid to reach the European Cup final in Glasgow – scene of their infamous 7-3 victory in 1960 versus Eintracht Frankfurt from Germany. During that match the great Di Stefano was at the peak of his powers, scoring a hat-trick. Real’s modern day number 5 couldn’t quite emulate three goals, but scored what is considered the greatest goal in European Cup final history – a tremendous volley with his left foot (his wrong foot) from the edge of the penalty box, to rule Real to a 2-1 win over Bayer Laverkusen…from Germany. He had completed his Holy Grail.
Zidane won further trophy’s whilst in Spain, adding a La Liga championship, a UEFA Supercup and another Intercontinental Cup to his now bursting trophy cabinet. He also claimed a third World Player of the Year award in 2003, making him the joint highest ever recipient (alongside Ronaldo).
Zizou was more than a collection of awards though. To watch him play during his peak was like watching the top ballet star perform, albeit in football boots, such was his elegance and technique when controlling and gliding with the ball. His identifying characteristics move, the roulette, looked like a graceful pirouette performed in the middle of a clumsy mob, leaving his midfield markers dumfounded and kicking fresh air. His attributes led Michel Platini to observe: ‘Technically, I think he is the king of what’s basic in the game – control and passing. I don’t think anyone can match him when it comes to controlling or receiving the ball.’ Brazilian coaching legend Carlos Alberto Parreira put it rather more bluntly, though non-the less complimentary, simply labelling him: ‘a monster!’
Unlike many of the other mythical fantasisti, Zidane wasn’t a great goalscorer, never reaching double figures in Italy or Spain. However, he was most definitely a scorer of great goals. More importantly he was a scorer of decisive goals in big games, especially on the international stage. He scored twice (two identical headers) in the 1998 World Cup final, when France beat Brazil 3-1 to win their first ever (and only) World Cup. During Euro 2000 he scored a sublime free-kick in the quarter-finals versus Spain, then, followed it up scoring a Golden Goal in the semi-final win versus Portugal. Euro 2004 saw a poor French performance but Zidane provided one of the highlights of the competition when scoring twice (a free-kick and a penalty) in injury time, turning a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 victory versus England during the opening group game. Cementing his place as a mythical World Cup performer in 2006 Zidane scored the winner, another penalty versus Portugal in the semi-final. He then scored (another penalty) again in another World Cup final, giving France an early rule against Italy in what was his final match as a specialized footballer (he had announced his retirement from the game before the tournament). Sadly for him, France lost that game. already sadder was the fact that Zidane wasn’t able to stay on the pitch until the final whistle – having received a red card. Unfortunately for Zizou, red cards also form part of his legend.
As a playmaker Zidane’s expression was all in his creative flair and artistry. However, during his career he was no stranger to some unsavoury incidents on the football pitch. Zidane was sent-off a enormous 12 times during his career (including five times at Juventus and twice whilst at Real Madrid) – mostly for retaliation. These violent flashpoints were in direct contrast to his perceived cool persona as he glided around the field, though his brooding, often moody stare also served as a warning; he was a player who would not be bullied. His response to provocation was first noted during his younger days at Cannes. Whilst he never started any trouble, he knew how to take care of himself. As Richard Williams deftly puts it in his excellent book ‘The Perfect 10’, he would respond: ‘in a way that might be expected from a boy formed in a tough quarter of a hard-nosed city, where an injury might be repaid with a headbutt’. Fast forward 18 years and Marco Materazzi was living testament that age had not mellowed Zidane’s own sense of personal justice – a flying headbutt to the Italian’s chest in response to alleged provocation during the 2006 World Cup final. His last act as a specialized footballer.
Many forget however, that this was not Zizou’s first red card during a World Cup tournament. Indeed during France’s triumphant World Cup victory in 1998 it is very easy to forget, in all the hysteria of his two headed goals in the final, that he was briefly a French villain. During the second group game versus Saudi Arabia, the balding fantasista inexplicably lost his cool and stamped on the back of the Saudi captain whilst he was lay on the ground after a challenge. It left the watching world mystified, as this time Zidane’s brand of personal justice seemed to come without any direct provocation. The French poster-boy was given a two match suspension, putting ‘Les Bleus’ campaign in jeopardy – the then captain Didier Deschamps summing up the nervous feeling of the nation: ‘I know he’s capricious, but he’s put us all at risk’. Indeed without Zidane, the French struggled (ultimately winning) in their last-16 tie versus Paraguay – which is testament to the effect Zizou had on the national team. This would become a worrying noticeable characterize of all the French teams for the next decade; such was Zidane’s stature and ability. With him, they were world beaters, without him they looked also rans. During qualification for the 2006 finals, the French (without Zidane who had announced his international retirement in 2004) almost failed to qualify. Zidane (along with Thuram and Makelele) answered the call to help out his country and was closest reinstated as captain. In doing so he immediately rejuvenated the French who went on to reach the (ill-fated) final of the tournament – along the way knocking out past and future champions Brazil and Spain, with Zidane in imperious form and winning the competition’s Most Valuable Player award.
So with this fantasista, we had the beauty and the beast. The grace and the violence. Taking the rough with the smooth, he was one hell of a player – maybe Parreira had described him best after all…he was a monster!
Born: 23rd June 1972 in Marseille (France)
Height: 1.85m / 6ft 1″
1988-1992: Cannes – 61 apps / 6 goals
1992-1996: Bordeaux – 139 apps / 28 goals
1996-2001: Juventus – 151 apps / 24 goals
2001-2006: Real Madrid – 155 apps / 37 goals
Totals: 506 app / 95 goals
1994-2006: France – 108 caps / 31 goals
World Player of the Year: 1998, 2000, 2003
Ballon D’Or: 1998
FIFA World Cup: 1998
UEFA European Championship: 2000
UEFA Champions League: 2002
UEFA Supercup: 1996, 2002
Intercontinental Cup: 1996, 2002
Serie A Champions: 1997, 1998
La Liga Champions: 2003