This feature is part of Duology
Zinedine Zidane was a one-off. With or without the ball under his spell, he would float around the pitch as though he were merely skimming its surface. Watching him glide effortlessly between phases of play, Zidane, at times, took on the appearance of an interpretive dancer, prancing between players and tackles with balletic poise and gallic assurance; into space, beyond lunges, through presses, never more than a distinctive La Roulette away from freedom. He would demand the ball, calm it in an instant with the flat of his chest, the soft of his thigh, the point of his toe, and carry it forwards with unmistakable purpose and intent.
Unburdened by the duties that would rest so expectantly upon his broad shoulders, for club and for country, Zidane would meander around the pitch entirely at his own leisure, flicking delicate first-time passes here and threading destructive through-balls beyond defences there. Only occasionally would he burst into more obvious authoritative action; often to storm ahead of his fellow midfielders to thunder a cross home with his head or rifle a strike beyond a flat-footed goalkeeper with either of his capable feet; at other times to explode in a whole other manner as his always simmering temper would bubble beyond boiling point, into outright aggression, and his emotions would erupt in a flash of calculated violence. Zidane was gunpowder stowed in an ornate glass vial.
Performing concerto after concerto, out on the pitches his very presence would make a stage, Zidane almost certainly inspired more children to take up the beautiful game than any other of his generation, not only on account of his edge-of-the-seat volatility but because of how deceptively simple he made the act of crafting the beautiful seem. At his best, Zidane was footballing elegance personified. He was inimitable and implacable.
Throughout four of his five unforgettable years in Turin, Zidane played by the side of his perfect foil. The two often fittingly draped in black and white, Edgar Davids was the yin to Zidane’s yang. His partner in crime, the hard-hitting Dutchman could scarcely have been better suited to partnering Zidane had the Frenchman designed him from scratch himself.
If Zidane were the flower whose thorns were found only upon intimate inspection, Davids’ were the thorns immediately apparent. Nicknamed the Pitbull by compatriot and manager Louis van Gaal, on account of his dogged determination, his bark and his bite, Davids played an intuitively aggressive, combative breed of football, borne from his early days spent mastering his craft on the streets of Amsterdam, and was never afraid of putting his body on the line, of winning ugly should the occasion demand it. This in part explains the other exclusively animal-oriented names with which Davids was adorned during his career: the Piranha, the Shark. One underhit pass, one loose touch, and he’d chew you up.
Still, anybody who believed Davids to be solely animalistic, purely a physical presence or an outright bully and nothing more, simply never watched him play. The midfielder boasted an exemplary array of skills, equipped with a level of technique that players with a mere fraction of his tenacity could only dream of possessing. He could snatch or wrestle the ball back from his opponent and be burdened by no compulsion to offload possession to progress up the field. His belief in his own ability was unshakable. He could breach a backline with a cute pass. He could ask questions of the sturdiest of ‘keepers with a long-range rocket. Davids was creative and he was adaptable.
Zidane found his way to Juventus following successful spells with his native Cannes and Bordeaux. Following seven seasons at home, in 1996, Zidane departed Ligue 1 as the division’s Player of the Year and, after a handful of English clubs allegedly passed up the opportunity to sign him, the European champions Juventus acquired his services for an implausibly inexpensive £3.2m. His move to Italy, aged 24, would soon see him realise every ounce of his immense potential and begin the skyward journey that would elevate him from prospect to prodigy.
Davids, meanwhile, found his place at Juve after a year at AC Milan that had threatened to dig up the tremendous foundations he had strived to lay for himself at hometown club Ajax. Davids had already secured a litany of silverware with his boyhood team, including three consecutive Eredivisie titles and a Champions League win to boot, meaning his reputation also preceded his arrival on Italian soil.
At Juventus, Zidane and Davids, under the expert tutelage of experienced Italian manager Marcello Lippi, whose soon-to-be historic brainwave it was that brought the two together, would become the heart and soul of the squad that bagged successive Serie A titles in the waning years of the 1990s, where they would dovetail supremely.
So in sync were the duo, in fact, their fortunes seemed to match one another’s, more so than any other ordinary teammates. This was never made clearer than during a Champions League group stage fixture, at home to Hamburg in late October 2000, when the Old Lady of Italy was downed 3-1 by the travelling Germans. In the space of just four first-half minutes, Juventus were reduced to nine men and it was both Zidane and Davids who saw red. The former received his marching orders for an outrageous headbutt delivered to defender Jochen Kientz, while Davids was given his for two rapidly earned bookings. They won together, they lost together.
Operating as the Lippi’s “one-man engine room”, Davids did the dirty work and he did it well. Though not exclusively an enforcer, Davids’ demanding approach to pressing and insistent ball-retention made the lives of his opponents hell and, with their energy and enthusiasm sapped, subsequently cleared the floor to allow the likes of Zidane to weave his majestic ways at will.
When asked during an interview with FourFourTwo to name the key to his partnership with Zidane, Davids reflected: “It was about trust and about energy. If you have this connection with someone then you know what’s going to happen. It’s about feelings, about knowing football on a certain level, and we both understood football on the same level.” Beside one another, at the epicentre of every game, it appeared Davids and Zidane boasted a connection like few others. This connection even exceeded domestic bounds.
At the European Championship in 2000, Davids’ own nation, co-hosts Netherlands, faced Zidane’s France in the tournament’s group stage and, in the days preceding the fixture, far from exercising a common caution or simply reiterating his focus on his own duties, Davids couldn’t contain his praise for his Juventus teammate and upcoming opponent: “Simply watching Zidane train inspires me. He is one of the best players in the world,” Davids professed. “He thinks in one second and does it the next. He is a special player, one who is original and exceptional. He creates space where there is none. Only the very best players can do that. No matter where he gets the ball or how it comes to him, Zidane can get out of trouble. His imagination and his technique are amazing.”
Davids was constantly impressed by the work Zidane would produce by his side and Zidane appeared forever grateful for the platform the work of Davids afforded him.
At Juventus, the two midfielders were blessed to form the spine of a squad of magnificent vintage. Equipped with the consummate professionalism and awareness of Ciro Ferrara, the unyielding drive and ambition of Antonio Conte, the rare potency and grace of Alessandro Del Piero, Juve soared domestically, even if they were found wanting on the European stage. Yet, even among a sky full of stars, Zidane and Davids shone.
Certainly, both players had their defects. Davids’ was physical: glaucoma necessitated the wearing of goggles whenever on the pitch, an obligatory accessory that needlessly aided the midfielder in standing out among the crowd, and, so impossible is it not to mention, Zidane’s was mental; an idiosyncratic temper that brought to the fore his dominant flaw with alarming regularity.
But these factors sought only to further underline the qualities of both players as it reminded those watching that the two were, despite compelling evidence, only human. Men, not machines, were responsible for the acts beholden to those fortunate enough to witness their dazzling double act in the flesh.
Eventually Zidane and his ambitions would outgrow even the giants of Turin and leave behind his Dutch companion as he migrated west, seeking the sanctity and splendour of Madrid where, with his fellow Galácticos at Real, he continued to fine-tune every formidable facet of his game. In the stark white of Los Merengues, Zidane’s legend would continue to grow, as he became a deserved champion of Spain and of Europe, certifying himself as one of the most naturally talented and universally treasured footballers ever to bless the game.
Edgar Davids, too, would ply his trade on shores further afield before hanging up his boots, orchestrating memorable spells at Barcelona, Internazionale and Tottenham Hotspur, as well as Crystal Palace and, remarkably, even Barnet. He would never quite recapture the magic of his halcyon days at Juventus, though he might have rediscovered some of the madness while in the more modest tiers of the English pyramid, but Davids had long since earned his own place among the storied elite of football history.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp