Zinedine Zidane arrived at Euro 2000 following yet another impressive season in Turin. His creativity and ability to spot passes- barely visible on television broadcast let alone amongst the intensity of being pitch level – helped Juventus to do almost everything but win Serie A.
A trident of footballing intelligence made of the Frenchman and two Italians in Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi was a devastating combination for the Old Lady, as she strolled through Serie A from August to March losing just once in 26 matches.
However, a late-season collapse would forever taint what could have been a successful season for the Bianconeri. Four defeats in the final eight league games gifted the title to Lazio on the final day, where a controversial defeat away at Perugia dealt the final blow.
With the fixture being played under the patter of heavy rainfall in the capital of central Italy’s Umbria region, the question loomed whether or not the Umbrian soil and turf could host this Scudetto-decider. Pierluigi Collina, with a Diadora umbrella providing shelter to his iconic, hairless head, tested the bounce and the roll of the ball on the surface. With officials and players anxiously waiting on his decision, as well as those associated with Lazio elsewhere, the legendary referee’s famously accurate eyes watched minimal splashes as the leather of the ball hit the surface. The match went on and Perugia defeated a timid Juventus, who ended the season trophyless.
As if he didn’t already have it, an unsavoury ending to the campaign for Zidane’s Juventus would provide extra motivation to perform to his jaw-dropping, time-stopping best for his country at Euro 2000. Already world champions after their number 10’s head converted two corners in 1998’s French-hosted World Cup final against Brazil, Les Bleus arrived as favourites.
Under the immense pressure of what these players had achieved just two years before, France started a little tentative in their Group D opener against Denmark. The winners of the 1992 tournament, of course, knew the advantages of being an underdog, hitting their far more illustrious opponents on the break early on, only for Jon-Dahl Tomasson to be denied by the leg of Manchester United’s new goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
The pre-match ritual of Laurent Blanc kissing the bald head of his short-sleeved goalkeeper for good luck appeared to be working as their side narrowly escaped going a goal down on multiple occasions in the early stages.
Once Zidane received the ball from Blanc 10 minutes in, central and just inside his own half, the world champions had truly arrived at Euro 2000. Zizou began to accelerate with the ball, gliding past two opponents playing an excellent one-two. Sidestepping a fourth and narrowly skipping past the desperate slide of a fifth Danish defender, Zidane surged on before Stig Tøfting brought the midfielder down with what was already his third foul of the game.
In complete juxtaposition to Tøfting, the tough-tackler with an aggressive approach to not just football (he was briefly jailed for assault in June 1999), Zidane’s elegant run had lifted the ball from one end to another, and encouraged his team-mates and supporters, who serenaded their talisman with a chorus of “ZI-ZOU, ZI-ZOU”.
Not too long later his side opened the scoring. Blanc’s smooch of the head of Barthez appeared to be creating further luck, as the centre-back triggered a beautiful combination of passes that sprung the offside trap for Nicolas Anelka, who had been put through on goal to no avail by a Zidane pass moments earlier. He tried to round Peter Schmeichel again, but the big Dane quelled Anelka only for Laurent Blanc’s continuing of his run to align perfectly with where the ball ended up – and he made it 1-0.
Zidane was imperious throughout the tournament
A fine solo effort from Henry on 64 minutes, scored on a counter-attack initiated by a clipped pass from Zidane into the number 12’s path, added a second goal for France who won their Euro 2000 debut comfortably. Sylvain Wiltord added a third in injury time. It was a dominating start from both France and Zidane, but a sterner test was to follow.
Czech Republic’s side included big names and an even bigger striker. Pavel Nedvěd, recently passed fit to play, started, as did Karel Poborský and all six feet and seven inches of forward Jan Koller. An even more talented side awaited France in their third and final group game in the form of Holland and, despite surely not fearing anyone – such was the recent form of the French – securing qualification before meeting the co-hosts was seen as important.
Lady luck helped them again as they were fortunate not go behind early, before Thierry Henry administered the ultimate punishment to a dreadful Czech back-pass to open the scoring in the seventh minute. Not long before, travelling French fans had been chanting Zidane’s nickname again as he escaped two defenders with a mesmerising roulette, adding a finishing touch to the skill by rolling it just beyond the toes of the extra man commissioned to mark him.
Despite taking an early lead once more, this game was far tighter than the one that had preceded it. A narrow defeat to Holland meant that the Czech Republic, dealt the cruellest group stage draw of all nations at Euro 2000, were fighting for their future in the tournament already. The result was a narrow 2-1 victory for France to send the spirited Czechs home, but if their opponents were more clinical in finishing potential assists from Zizou, the scoreline could have had more gloss.
One such example fashioned a chance for Henry to double his tally, where Zidane, on the edge of the box, rolled the ball with his studs to his left before jabbing it with the outside of the Adidas Predator on his right foot. The pass travelled through a narrow pathway in the Czech defence towards Henry, who was centimetres away from turning Zidane’s wizardry into an assist.
The Marseille-born man would torment defenders in this game as he did in several others throughout the competition as he caressed, dragged, flicked and even chipped the ball overhead to escape his opponents.
With the route to the quarter-finals assured, Zidane and others were rested for the meeting with Netherlands, a game that Gérard Houllier predicted would be a dress rehearsal for the eventual final. It was to be one of the games of the tournament as the Oranje came from behind twice to beat a rotated but still star-studded France 3-2. The co-hosts therefore topped the group at France’s expense.
News before that game concerning the French national team had been regarding matters far from the pitch. The ugly head of terrorism had reared, stemming from an Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group (GIA) who had planned an attack on the French team; the same French team whose success on home soil two years previous had unified the nation with it’s multi-cultural team of world champions.
The players were moved to a different hotel in the wake of information from French authorities. It was an unneeded distraction for the squad and Zidane, whose Algerian descent and superstar status would put his as the unwanted face of the story from the perspective of the players.
Nevertheless, when back on the pitch, be it Dutch or Belgian turf, Zidane and teammates were focused, with their main man continuing his irresistible form. Spain in the city of Bruges was the quarter-final, conveniently placed for France supporters who would flock to the Sint-Andries Stadion to rejoice in yet another chorus of their playmaker’s nickname.
Read | Zidane, Deschamps and France’s functional Euro 2000 winners
In this fixture, Zidane strolled around the green of the pitch, with body language you’re unlikely to see in any other sport. Supreme confidence can often be mistaken for arrogance, and arrogance can often be mistaken for a lack of effort.
Zidane skipped around in and out of possession, having the sixth-sense to instinctively accelerate when the time was right, whether it was to dribble past an opponent or use a teammate as a wall-pass, to make Spaniards appear as though they were nothing but mere piggies in the middle. His output would often start with a first touch that would make the ball stop in an almost unnatural looking way.
In the 20th minute of the quarter-final, with the play down the French left-wing, Zizou drifts to the opposite flank. Jogging sideways with his arms aloft, pleading for a switch of the ball knowing full-well what he can create if his peers agree to his plan, the ball is sent high through the air towards the Juventus player. Somehow knowing precisely where the ball is destined to land, Zidane stands up Spain’s left-back Agustín Aranzábal before it lands.
Now gently walking backwards on his toes, Zizou absorbs the pitch-wide pass onto the laces of his right-foot – it stops dead. He then finds his underlapping captain Didier Deschamps, and the pair are inches away from completing a one-two which would have put its initiator in a great position to score his first goal of the competition, but it wasn’t to be. Twelve minutes later, though, it would be.
When Youri Djorkaeff is fouled five yards outside of the Spanish penalty area, anticipation builds in the ground as that “ZI-ZOU” chant rings once again. The man in question composes himself before striking the ball powerfully with his instep, sending it quickly curving through the air of the warm Belgian evening and past a shrieking Santiago Cañizares into the top corner. It’s Zidane’s first goal of the tournament and it’s a stupendous one.
The lead wasn’t to last long, but France eventually progressed from the dramatic quarter-final after Zidane’s future Real Madrid team-mate, Raúl, missed a late penalty which would have taken the game to extra-time. But it was a Spaniard of Barcelona, not Madrid, who Zizou competed best with in the form of Pep Guardiola, Spain’s chief puller of strings in a deep-lying role that coincided with the same area of the pitch the Frenchman would also seek to play.
It was a fascinating battle between two of the greatest footballing brains of their generation, as Pep tried to dictate the game’s tempo and Zizou sought to make it flow to in a way that suited him. As Collina, yet again in charge of a vital fixture in Zidane’s new millennium, blew the final whistle, the rivals swapped shirts in a moment that should be remembered as being equally beautiful as the earlier free-kick. Years later, Guardiola would refer to Zidane as “the greatest player in history”, with that evening in Bruges no doubt playing a huge factor in such a statement.
From Bruges to Brussels for the semi-final, in a game some billed as Zidane versus Luís Figo. Debates were had over which of these new-millennium luminaries was the greatest. Even those within the French camp were undecided. Frank Leboeuf told the BBC in the build-up to the game against Portugal: ‘”Figo is for me simply the best player in the world at the moment. He’s got more influence in his team, and I think he is more efficient in front of goal.”
But from within the very same midfield as Zidane, Patrick Vieira was one of many who heaped praise on Juventus’ number 21. “He’s my hero,” said the future Arsenal captain. ”If you play alongside him, you just want to perform like him. He lifts you so much. When you see him fight for the ball, you want to fight with him and fight for him.”
Talk stopped at 20:45 local time as Zidane entered the game with a delicate back-heel to Lizarazu, pushing the ball into the overlapping left-back’s path with a swagger he carried all tournament. Seconds later, his frighteningly accurate driven switch of the ball to Lilian Thuram on the opposite flank underlined his capability of making the simple things just as pleasing to witness as the intricacies in his game.
Read | Zinedine Zidane and the making of a king
But he and France were to be frustrated in this semi-final tie. Nuno Gomes’ opener against the run of the play leads to bickering in this usually together French outlet, with Zidane involved in a feisty challenge with his opposite number Figo, and is later pictured in a heated discussion with Henry as sweat pours off the face that usually hosts such nonchalant expression. Order is restored, however, when a marauding run from Zidane sees him beat several defenders, somehow keeping possession using every centimetre of his leg-span at the end of a dribble which was becoming typical of his tournament form.
Anelka and Henry would combine to get the world champions back on level terms after half-time, but the most memorable and replayed moment of a gripping second half would be a certain first touch from Zinedine Zidane. Occupying space on the wide-right once more, a lofted ball comes over towards him, but is far from perfect in its accuracy.
Vieira in the aforementioned interview said “Zidane turns a bad pass into a good pass,” and as he jumps up to allow this ball to bounce off his proud French chest, over his own head whilst he prances with eyes on the ball as it spins in the floodlights, then connects with it as it bounces to turn sharply, the words from Vieira make perfect sense. An ingenious cross into the box for Anelka then follows, but the striker was inches from meeting it with a diving header.
Nevertheless, this spectacular example of skill became somewhat synonymous with Zidane’s influential performances at the championships. Almost 118 minutes of football and all of his will couldn’t separate the teams though, and it took a penalty conceded by Abel Xavier’s goal denying handball and unsurprisingly converted by an unfazed Zizou to book Les Bleus’ place in the Rotterdam final.
Fierce rivals Italy awaited France, where one last Blanc kiss of the head of Barthez’ would signal the start of a tense final. A Marco Delvecchio volley opened the scoring and the Feijenoord Stadion scoreboard wouldn’t change but for the seconds constantly mounting as the Italians hung on and on until the 93rd minute. Wiltord’s left-footed strike squirmed under Francesco Toldo, whose performances at Euro 2000 saw him acclaimed as the best goalkeeper in the championship, but preventing this late equaliser proved to be one save too many.
Prior to clawing back into the game, Zidane had tried to make what looked increasingly unlikely happen. His chest featured, bringing balls under his control and trying to step-over, jink and spin away from Italian defenders who knew his game all-too-well from back in Serie A. It was Demetrio Albertini who ushered Zidane all game and to his credit he did so with typical Italian defensive discipline and skill. Yet, stopping Zidane only allowed other members of the French team that extra inch of space and, to break the hearts of their bordering opposition, David Trezeguet struck gold with the decisive goal, an emphatic left-footed finish to bring an end to the tournament and more jubilation for his country.
A double of World Cup and European Championship wins is one of many jewels in a glittering career for Zidane, which spanned from 1989 to that infamous, second international final meeting with Italy in 2006. He exhibited his supreme talent across France, Italy and Spain but it was in Belgium and the Netherlands where Zizou, truly in his prime, further established himself as one of football’s greatest players.
By Greg Stanley. Follow @GregStanley1994