Before hanging up his boots for good after the 2006 World Cup, two moments, across six years of this particular decade, defined Zinedine Zidane. We all know what they are. Both paint him in a completely different light; positive, negative, and both, in a strange way, add to the awe that follows Zizou everywhere he goes.
It’s a shame that he’s mostly remembered for just two actions on a football pitch – a sweep of the left foot and a thrust of the head. Despite the legendary weight placed upon these points in time, Zidane is much more than that. There’s a reason why the current superstars of Real Madrid stop and listen to him, a reason why Florentino Pérez begged him to come back. Why he was considered, by so many, to be the very best.
There’s very little competition when it comes to comparing him with other players from this period in footballing history, let alone comparing him with other players that share the same first letter. Wigan fans may point you to the outstandingly short flash in the pan that was Amr Zaki, and Fulham supporters would likely wax lyrical about Bobby Zamora’s heroics in the Europa League, but Zidane in untouchable.
Scoring a brace in the final of your home World Cup and winning the Ballon d’Or would be the crowning moment for literally any other human being, but Zidane took it up a notch once he and everyone else broke into the 21st century. Euro 2000 brought more international silverware for Les Bleus, with Zidane proving himself yet again on the biggest stage. A stunning free-kick against Spain in the quarter-finals and a powerful golden goal penalty in the last four were just a couple of several moments of brilliance from the golden boy amidst a golden generation.
Even more dazzling displays for Juventus saw Real Madrid fork out 12.8bn pesetas – around £46.5m – to bring him to the Bernabeu a year later. A fitting world record for the greatest on the planet. But what Los Blancos were getting was priceless, a player that oozed class and floated through games with a serenity as if he was in his own bubble, untouchable to the opposition.
Under Vicente del Bosque, Real were unable to defend their LaLiga title, finishing nine points behind eventual champions Valencia. Seemingly unburdened by previous Champions League failures, the Frenchman drove his side to the third final of his career, in Glasgow. A deft dink at Camp Nou in the semis was far from perfect but it was enough to beat Barcelona’s Roberto Bonano in goal, giving the visitors the lead in the first leg of this Clásico tie. Steve McManaman added a second and Madrid progressed 3-1 on aggregate after a second-leg draw at the Bernabéu. Bayer Leverkusen awaited them at Hampden Park, with an eagerly-anticipated match-up between Zidane and Michael Ballack the focus of much of the build-up.
Raúl and Lúcio exchanged early goals in Glasgow before the match trudged towards half-time. Roberto Carlos looped a hopeful ball up into the penalty area; Ballack had lost his man and could only watch as it fell towards the number five in white, on the edge of the box. You’ve seen it hundreds of times already.
“It all went so fast, I didn’t have time to think, but I had a great view of the goal – better than any of the cameras,” Santiago Solari said. “I saw him aiming and when you see him start to make that movement, you know he is going to shoot. It was amazing: he caught it very high, with his left foot. It was a one-in-a-lifetime, a magical technical gesture.” It was an ‘I was there’ moment, even for Zidane’s Real Madrid teammates. What made it more special was that it came on the club’s 100th anniversary, perhaps eclipsing everything else that had come before it.
Zidane doesn’t show emotion very often. There was something curiously strange about his unchoreographed reaction to Gareth Bale’s overhead kick against Liverpool, almost like seeing a statue lapse out of character for a few seconds. After the volley against Leverkusen, you can see him wheel off shouting, slightly unsure of what to do with himself for once. These outbursts of emotion didn’t come very often, even less so now as a manager. One would cost him further down the line.
A thigh injury prevented Zizou from playing much part in the World Cup that same summer, scuppering defending champions France’s chances of retaining their title – or even making it out of the group stages. As he often does, Florentino Pérez swooped for the eventual star of the tournament and spent big money to secure Ronaldo’s signature.
With the Brazilian feeding off Zidane, Luís Figo and co, there weren’t many teams that could stop Real Madrid during the following campaign. Key goals from Zidane against Málaga, Sevilla and Valencia during the winter months saw Real’s title push gain serious momentum, as they went on to claim the club’s 29th league crown.
The president’s Gálacticos era continued that summer as David Beckham joined from Manchester United to provide further options to a midfield that was already crammed with quality. Despite a promising start of the 2003/04 season, Los Blancos emphatically fell out of the title race, losing their final five games of the campaign. Carlos Quieroz was sacked and the players left for Euro 2004 looking to put the past few weeks behind them.
Zidane and Beckham came face-to-face in their opening games as France met England in Lisbon. Beckham set up England’s opener before seeing his second-half spot-kick saved by former United teammate Fabien Barthez. Nevertheless, it looked as if Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men would creep to an important win. That was until they were ambushed at the death. Captain Zidane’s whipped free-kick in stoppage time rooted David James to the spot and bulged the net.
Just moments later, Thierry Henry was wiped out by James inside the area and the German referee pointed to the spot. Several of the English players stood on their toes around the edge of the box, ready to smother their opponents if Zidane missed – Gary Neville was almost past the midfielder by the time he struck the ball. Beckham just stood there, hands on hips on the edge of the D. He knew what was coming. With unerring composure, Zidane found the same corner he’d buried the ball in just a couple of minutes before and secured an unlikely victory. That he threw up moments before taking it had no impact. Zidane was unfazed.
France weren’t the only team to be rocked by Greece that summer in Portugal. The Euro 2004 winners didn’t manage to qualify for the World Cup in Germany two years later. France almost didn’t either. Zidane and several other more senior figures had quit international football after the Euros and, with Les Bleus in serious danger of missing out on making the finals, were persuaded to return to the fold by Raymond Domenech.
By the time Zidane lined up against Switzerland in Stuttgart, he’d already said his goodbyes to Real Madrid as his retirement loomed. Two draws in their first two games saw France needing a win against Togo to reach the knockout stages – and they had to do it without their suspended skipper.
After a nervy first half, Patrick Vieira and Henry scored after the break to send them through to play Group H winners Spain in Hannover. That meant reunions with Iker Casillas, Raúl and Sergio Ramos that had come about quicker than anyone had expected. With the tie level at 1-1 going into the final ten minutes, a 34-year-old Zidane made the difference again. His free-kick found its way to Vieira, who nodded in at the back post to give Les Bleus the lead, before he danced around Carles Puyol and slotted past Casillas to seal France’s safe passage to the last eight. This wasn’t just a sentimental swansong: Zidane had his eyes set on the trophy.
Ronaldo and Brazil greeted him in the quarters, as Zidane rolled back the years in a performance for the ages. There were the typical flicks and tricks, but also powerful drives past yellow shirts. He skipped past challenges, commanded dead-ball duties. In the 57th minute, he lofted a free-kick right over the Brazilian defence and onto Henry’s boot and France took a lead they would not surrender. Portugal were next and boasted another one of Zidane’s friends amongst their ranks, another icon writing their final chapter. Zidane made Figo’s ending an unhappy one with a first-half penalty to decide the game and send France into their second World Cup final.
The final astounding paragraphs of Zidane’s tale were written at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The Panenka, the headbutt, and the walk past the trophy were the final images of this illustrious journey – a script that not even Zidane himself could’ve written. His career ended under a cloud of unbelievable irrationality, but it was not unbefitting of a player who had spent the best part of two decades bemusing people with his actions. Zinedine Zidane, there is no disputing, was like no other.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08