This feature is part of Virtuoso
If only they’d waited. In 2005, a film crew led by Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon decided to study Zinedine Zidane’s every movement during a game. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was an ambitious project that trained 17 different cameras on the French superstar for Real Madrid’s home fixture against Villarreal in the 2004/05 season, with the footage pieced together to show how the number five lived, breathed and experienced every moment of a match.
It was an interesting film, artistically impressive and as well-executed as it was ambitious. It was a good game of football, too, with Juan Román Riquelme scoring a first-half penalty for Villarreal, before Ronaldo – assisted by Zidane – and Míchel Salgado got the goals to make it a 2-1 Real Madrid victory. There were three red cards too, one of them for the film’s French protagonist in the final minute. But if only they’d waited until 1 July 2006: the day Zidane danced.
It was the quarter-final of the 2006 World Cup and France were to take on Brazil, the side Zidane had put to the sword eight years previously, in the final at the Stade de France. The winners of the past three World Cups were fighting each other for a semi-final berth and this time the location was Frankfurt. Those who were there that evening witnessed what was arguably the midfielder’s greatest ever performance, in his antepenultimate match.
Having announced his plans to retire before the tournament, defeat would have made this Zidane’s final appearance between the white lines. It was ‘winner stays on’ mode for him and, just as when he played by the same rules in the playgrounds of Marseille as a child, he was calm, he was mischievous and he was out to have fun.
Following a pre-match embrace and giggle with club teammate Ronaldo, the ball got rolling and Zidane, wearing appropriately golden boots, got going. “There was magic in the air that day,” he later said in an interview with FIFA and it took him just 34 seconds to realise this, backheeling the ball through an infinitesimal gap between Zé Roberto and Kaká, before turning upfield and gliding through Brazilian tackles like Super Mario or Crash Bandicoot evading baddies. This was a first-minute warning, but there was nothing the Seleção could do. They knew he was the danger man. They knew what was coming. They did not, though, know how to stop him.
Zidane’s touch that night was perfect, totally perfect. He did the simple things so coolly and confidently, lofting balls over onrushing opponents with the insouciance of someone tossing a scrunched-up ball of paper into a wastebasket, rather than the haste of a player aware that there’s a World Cup semi-final on the line. It was Nike advert-esque at times, with Zidane showcasing the kind of skills that most professionals can perform during an on-pitch presentation after a transfer, but that few are composed enough to risk and execute in the presence of 21 peers.
It was more than just aesthetically pleasing, though. There was a purpose to the pleasure. All of Zidane’s movement, passing and dribbling was propelling France forward and was unlocking the Brazilian defence. The clearest example of this in the first half came in the 44th minute when he played a pass reminiscent of a rugby offload to Patrick Vieira, who would have reached the penalty area and got a shot off had he had a better first touch or not been felled by the desperate Juan.
Into the second-half, Zidane’s recital did lead to a goal, the only one of the game. First, he dinked the ball over the head of his pre-match chuckle brother Ronaldo, before heading a pass into the path of Éric Abidal, whose advancement up the left flank won the Europeans a free-kick, from which Zidane would conjure up the match-winning assist.
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Despite playing 54 international matches with Thierry Henry, the creator had never combined with the finisher for a goal, but that all changed in the 57th minute as the 34-year-old lofted the set-piece towards the back post from distance, one which the striker was able to turn past Dida. NFL quarterbacks wish they could throw as accurately as Zidane kicked that Teamgeist ball.
With the lead in their possession, France’s objective for the final half-hour was to keep the ball away from the dangerous South American attackers. Get it to Zidane, they thought. He’ll protect it. And he did. The midfield was Zidane’s private property and he decided who could enter, as Les Bleus held on for the 1-0 win, after which the midfielder was the first Frenchman to depart. His work was done.
“This was probably his best performance of the past eight years,” stated Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira during post-match media duties. He was right, it probably was. Zidane’s excellent World Cup in Germany created a narrative that, minus the headbutt in Berlin, ensured he went out on something of a high, on the wave of a crescendo. But the truth was that his final couple of years at Real Madrid had been disappointing. It would be revisionism in the extreme to suggest otherwise.
“Watching Xavi is like watching the Matrix, while watching Zidane is like watching Pathé News,” one Spanish journalist had said the previous season. The performances in the knockout rounds in Germany, therefore, came as something of a surprise. At that stage, there was an abnormal normality to it.
This was the story of a man upping his game for the big occasion, excited by the prospect of mesmerising the footballing world one last time, which he well and truly did that night in Frankfurt. His performance is one which will be replayed time and time again, dissected in footballing textbooks and revered in footballing scripture. If only Parreno and Gordon had been able to capture this performance with 17 Zidane-focussed cameras, it would also have immortalised in footballing film.
By Euan McTear @emctear
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp