Zinedine Zidane and the France debut that heralded the arrival of a genius

Zinedine Zidane and the France debut that heralded the arrival of a genius

This feature is part of Virtuoso

The thing about the emergence of greatness is that when you see it, you know. It will not initially manifest to the full order of magnitude that will come in time, but you’re left with a half-story that demands indulging in full. You’re hooked. When The Beatles first stepped foot onto a stage in Liverpool and played together in unison, did the crowd know what they were seeing? Did their gig feel as pronounced as when racehorse Frankel romped home in the 2000 Guineas by an unprecedented six lengths, leaving fans, trainers and bookies agasp? Something magic occurs during these inarticulable moments. It is like a chain of events being set in motion before you and all you can do is watch. You are the powerless witnessing the powerful.

A description alchemised by the greatest wordsmiths will change how we see something for the rest of our lives. We become destined to look at it through their lens. When something great occurs, we can’t unsee it. It’s happened and there’s no way to forget it, even though we often don’t understand it.

In football, greatness doesn’t just make us cheer, or make our jaws hit the floor, but instead gives us that rarest of feeling: contentment. Their apparent genius reminds us that our time, money and energy spent watching this game hasn’t been in vain. We smile because, when we witness such rare occasions first-hand, we see a whole new world open up in front of our eyes. The great ones have left Plato’s cave. They see things we’ll never see.

As far as debutants go, young French midfielder Zinedine Zidane exhibited an exuberant display of magisterial marvel best equated to a rare solar event. Famous American newspaper editor William Allen White mused, “Greatness, generally speaking, is an unusual quantity of usual quality grafted upon a common man.”

Despite it being a friendly against the Czech Republic, Les Blues headed in at half-time two goals down. There was nothing to play for except the most important prize: pride. The defensive stockpiling of manager Aimé Jacquet meant that the squad looked offensively barren. There was attacking tinder in Eric Cantona and Christophe Dugarry, but no spark.

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At the beginning of the second-half, Corentin Martins came off, replaced by the 22-year-old Bordeaux star who, at that point, was still a common man in the eyes of the world. When he left, after the final whistle, his claim to greatness had begun.

Off-the-mark, Zidane’s initial defining feature wasn’t his talent but his hunger. Everyone else looked full, as if the game bore no more fruit, but Zidane was always on the lookout for passes, always looking to pick it up and, buoyed by his incessant tracking back to regain possession, the team were being goaded back to life and began to look capable of tipping the balance back to their favour.

This aspect of Zidane’s game often takes place unobserved: the dirty side. We love the pirouettes and the passes but we ignore his heart. It’s in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait that we can observe his relentless search for the ball. Up close, his hawkish eyes flit around like their equivalent bird-of-prey’s. His highlight reel might be all glamour but an overlooked quantity of his game was grit.

Admired for his balance, Zidane is widely regarded as one of the finest all-rounders ever. His debut displayed the full spectrum of his capabilities, although, it wasn’t until the 85th minute that viewers were treated to a moment of truly fleeting excellence. His debut goal in his debut international match.

It came out of the blue. The players around him looked like white noise whilst Zidane was the glorious classical composition playing on a hairline frequency. Laurent Blanc found him with a heat-seeking pass from the right-back position where he, miraculously, beat an oncoming defender without even touching the ball. Such subtlety stood out like a roar.

The first defender slid, missed and looked on helplessly as the young man paced forward and shimmied passed another defender that hadn’t got the memo from his all-too-hasty teammate. Working the ball onto his left foot, the supposedly technically weaker of the two, he sent the ball dipping into the bottom corner from 30-yards out, beyond the reach of the hyperextended goalkeeper.

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Zizou, as he’d eventually become known, had made his grand proclamation on the international stage — Je suis là. Despite his exuberant display with the ball, his celebration was taciturn. Instead, he demanded the ball be hurried back to the centre-circle for kick-off. Distance is part of the allure of many of our icons. Zidane exhibited it from the get-go. His aloofness added to the enigma. Rarely had a kid cast such a potent spell. He wasn’t quite finished, though. His country was still a goal down.

Two minutes later, France won a corner. Jocelyn Angloma perfectly weighted the ball; a right-footed curling effort picking out a waiting Zidane who was lurking on the fringes of the fracas. Rising beyond his assumed capabilities, he met the ball and sent it straight into the top corner. As the keeper sat bewildered, Zidane granted himself the leeway of celebration.

Is he an enigma? Absolutely. Zidane is a code that, from his first international game scoring with his little talked about left foot and head, has yet to be broken. Well, perhaps he was, but that didn’t come until his very final international game over a decade later.

Greatness is eternally elusive. One agreed upon understanding of the trait is that, despite appearances, it isn’t selfish, rather it’s best measured by how it influences others. His advice has been described as gold dust and Zlatan Ibrahimović observed, “When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple. It was magic. He was a unique player. He was more than good, he came from another planet. His team-mates became like him when he was on the pitch.”

Remember, then, that in his France debut, he didn’t single-handedly pull his team through, rather he helped to pull them up. He was on the end of a pinhead precision pass and a great cross provided by his countrymen. They too, it seemed, had experienced his ability to inspire men, whether it be us in the stands or those lucky enough to have stood next to him on the hallowed turf.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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