A symbol who embodied so many different strands, Zinedine Zidane was far more than just a player during his lengthy reign at the peak of the world’s most popular sport. Before his incredible rise to become a world champion and an icon who transcended borders, the man we all came to know and love as ‘Zizou’ had to work hard to earn his reputation – a process that all started as a young boy when a love for football took hold in his early childhood.
At the time, it would have been nigh on possible to fathom that he would grow up to become a national icon, not least because his parents were of Algerian descent; something that has often caused frictions and tension on a national level. In fact, it was more because he had such a long road ahead of him at the time.
Growing up in La Castellane, Marseille, the future World Cup winner had an impoverished start in life, but it was through football that he invented a lifeline away from these beginnings, eventually going on to forge a career as a professional. Before any of these complexities entered his young mind, however, it was simply his tunnel-vision infatuation with the simplicities of the sport that led him to burrow down the alluring rabbit hole of the game’s unique sphere.
Starting his testing trek with AS Cannes as a 17-year-old, he was far removed from the world-beater many came to adore him for on the biggest stages around, but his rise through the ranks there led him to secure a move to Bordeaux soon after, before he nabbed a transfer to Juventus and, eventually, La Liga giants Real Madrid.
In black and white, his progression looks impressive and so it was in the cold light of day too, as the Frenchman showed himself to be quite the nimble technician at every stop along the way. Indeed, his first ever goal for Cannes seems all the more appropriate in hindsight than it probably did when it first happened on 10 February 1991, against Nantes in Ligue 1 as a fresh-faced teenager. An audacious lob wrapped up in all sorts of classy characteristics, that have since become synonymous with the now retired star, signalled his very first introduction to the big stage and set the scene for so many more big moments to come.
Here was a youngster unafraid to put his stamp on the game, yet unlike so many others who do so in a vain attempt to look good for the cameras or simply to showboat, he did it because football was his life, and he rarely took chances with it. Taking home Ligue 1’s award for the Young Player of the Year a few years later in 1994, his unrefined audacity was appreciated almost immediately following his transfer to Girondins de Bordeaux. That was the very same year he also began his journey with the national team, an excursion that would lead him to reach the highest reaches of the game.
Often referred to as one of the most natural talents the football world has ever seen, Zidane has rightly cemented his place in the shrine of all-time greats. Bringing a dashing air, as well as a substance, to a sport that boggles the mind, his opulence might not have been totally unique from a stylistic point of view but it certainly made him a striking player to watch over and over again.
Melding swashbuckling theatrics with solid intelligence down through the years, his ability to know when to turn on and off the dazzling brilliance was arguably his greatest strength. Because while he will always be regarded as one of the most talented and attractive of playmakers, he rarely over-did it; instead he did his utmost to reserve his greatest skill for the most opportune of moments. In short, he was a player who often knew when and how to rise to the occasion with his best.
Winning the World Cup in 1998 was a monumental achievement for the French national team and it’s one that will live long in the memory. Although they possessed a tremendously close-knit squad, it was Zidane who propelled them to a vivacious victory with a master-class in the key games.
Aside from the thrill of being their first-ever triumph on such a grand stage, which saw the Champs-Élysées in Paris united in celebration with the rest of the country, the sheer exhilaration of an unexpected charge to a title on home soil made this a truly unique event. Sure, a lot has been made about the fact the black-blanc-beur were a symbol for France as a progressive, dynamic and multicultural nation, but time has somewhat eroded that belief as media-driven sensationalism. Nevertheless, Zidane and company showed that they, like the country, could succeed despite their flaws and drawbacks.
Having launched himself close to the forefront of European football prior to the tournament with a bronze award in the 1997 FIFA World Player of the Year, this was a great opportunity to shine on a stage that seemed set just for him. Things didn’t go exactly to plan in the beginning, though, as he was dismissed from the field of play in a Group C encounter against Saudi Arabia. Holding a comfortable lead at 3-0, the Bianconeri star produced a despicable stamp on Fuad Amin after he had been challenged by him. Coasting along at ease, his viscous mentality reared its head unexpectedly; when he should have cocooned himself in a protective shell, he lashed out.
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Read | Zinedine Zidane and the defining moments of greatness at Euro 2000
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That’s how he was – a volcanic performer who could erupt with the audacity of genius on cue. But if there was one faulty mechanism he possessed it was his erratic temperament, and he could spew that too. Much like a genius in any other field, there was a notable dollop of madness to offset his method, an unhinged side to his psyche that always had the potential to upset his elegant equilibrium.
Everyone knows the most talked about example of Zizou’s most obvious foible – his infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final which saw him dismissed from the field of play.
Thinking about it now, most neutrals – and French fans – will still feel a pang of discomfort at the thought. It almost feels a little unfaithful to his memory that it happened, a bad dream that many would like to think never happened; a misleading mirage with a mind of its own out to taint his sporting estate. Alas it did happen, and it has coloured his past ever since, albeit a little too much. The truth is that Zizou accomplished so much else it almost doesn’t even bear thinking about.
Thankfully for Les Bleus, their ruling number 10, with baggy jersey and large, crisp collar in tow, was ready to reserve his best artistry for the remaining matches in ’98 once he had served his short ban. Netting his only two goals of the finals with his head in a dramatic showpiece clash against favourites Brazil at the Stade de France, he outshone everyone on the park to put in a world-class display when his team really needed it most to take home the World Cup trophy.
As we all now know, they went on to win the clash 3-0 against the expertise of so many, but their victory that night was one of a sumptuous pair. Heading into Euro 2000, however, and under the auspices of Roger Lemerre, they officially had the best player on the globe among their ranks, so confidence was high – and rightfully so – as they emerged victorious with David Trezeguet’s golden goal thunderbolt grabbing all the headlines in the final against Italy.
That said, it was Zizou who took home the Best Player gong for a consistent rendition across the board that included two more well-taken goals.
A star performer for so many years, ‘Yazid’ has inspired so many to give their all to the world of football, and if his international contributions were a testament to his brilliant ability to achieve when the chips were down, his exploits at club level confirmed his ability to do so with consistency. Winning the Intertoto Cup, the Super Cup, La Liga, Champions League as well as the Serie A (twice) there was little he didn’t get his hands on whether it was with Los Blancos or any other club.
Indeed, before Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Madrid to their long-awaited La Decima, it was Zidane who had brought them their last European crown. Netting three times during the 2001-02 campaign, he served up his most important, and one of the greatest cup final goals of all time, when he struck a perfectly crafted effort past the hapless Hans-Jörg Butt against Bayer Leverkusen. With eyes only for the ball, Madrid’s number 5 pirouetted on the spot to guide the ball into the top corner with his angled left peg, all but ending the Germans’ challenge in the 45th minute.
At the time, his historic goal was a real bolt from the blue that had spectators wide-eyed in disbelief. To conjure such daring at a moment of incredible tension and importance was nothing short of amazing, yet it was moments like that which helped Zidane secure his place at the pinnacle of the game time after time.
That said, his gargantuan footprints continue to tread all over the beautiful game as he’s now nurturing the stars of today in his current role as head coach of Real Madrid. Not only that but his very own offspring look ready to continue the legendary legacy he helped plant as a teenager.
With his four sons, Enzo, Theo, Elyaz and Luca, all coming through the Madridista’s youth academy, the future looks bright, and we could feel even more aftershocks from his legendary footfalls. Indeed, if they possess even a fraction of the ingenuity and class their father did on the field of play, it’s highly likely football fans will see another Zidane win a few more prestigious titles and winners’ medals.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90