Has any other player been so frustratingly brilliant as Zinedine Zidane? The Frenchman kept a quiet private life to his credit, but his transgressions on the pitch alternate between a rap sheet and a rhapsody. His feet could take down a 40 yard pass like a feather, yet in the blink of an eye bludgeon a Saudi player. Genius, yes. But deviant. Devlishly deviant.
Zinedine Zidane, known as “Zizou,” the French-born son of Algerian immigrants, plied his trade in France and Italy, making his name at Juventus, where his dizzying roulettes dazzled the catenaccio faithful. And his play for the French (les bleus) captivated a nation and a world.
In the World Cup final of 1998, at the Stade de France in Paris, Zidane, at the modest age of 26, carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders. France had never won the World Cup. Yet here they were, at home, in the final against the most successful national team in the history of the sport: Brazil. From the present, we view the past as preordained, prewritten, predestined. That night in Paris, Zizou made history.
France beat Brazil 3-0 with two goals from Zidane. Granted, both goals came courtesy of slack marking on setpieces, but Zizou had the composure to carefully remove the wrapping paper from the gift. How many lesser men would have skied their pointblank headers?
Still, the victory could not wash away the stains of his stomp against Saudi Arabia.
The world had its footballing genius, but he was tightly wound. Zidane´s vision and touch cloaked a hidden talent - balance. For Zizou, balance was more than equilibrium – it was aggression. His famous roulette often began as a hipcheck against opposing defenders – freezing them a split second as he slid past them.
In 2000, Zidane would lead France to European glory over Italy. While Terezeguet got the gamewinning goal, Zizou box-to-box performance earned accolades galore.
Zidane, like Pele and Maradonna, possessed the quality to make every other player on his team better – he could dominate a match without taking a single shot on goal. Madrid, in the first Galacticos era, could hardly write a big enough check to sign him, setting a world transfer record at the time.
Zidane would replay Perez with the sweetest of volleys – a moment of brilliance in an otherwise messy of a match. And Real would crown themselves king of Europe.
Due to injury, Zidane played no part in France´s disasterous first round exit from the World Cup in 2002. Zidane would return to win La Liga with Madrid in 2003, but eventually the galactico´s experiment would implode. In 2006, Zizou announced his retirement from football after the World Cup.
Things started poorly – Zidane was suspended for the last group stage match due to yellow cards, but France still qualified for the knockout rounds with a 2-0 victory over Togo. In the outrounds, a determined and rested Zidane returned to reclaim his throne. In style.
Against Spain, Zizou capitalized a 3-1 comeback by wrongfooting world class defender Carlos Puyol and goalkeeper Casillas. Cheeky? Yes, by the boatloads.
In the quarterfinals, Zidane and France faced a familiar foe: Brazil. Still, it was the verdeamarela who left the field mesmerized by Zidane, whom Pele called a “magician” for his performance. France won 1-0, with a Henry goal assisted by Zidane. But that doesn´t tell half the story…
Have you ever stopped to ask: what if Hans Solo had never returned to shoot down Darth Vader´s ship and enable Luke to blow up the original Death Star? Or better yet, do you remember the anticipation which filled your heart and mind upon seeing the first Star Wars Prequel trailer? And then the dread, when, ten minutes into the film, you realized Jajar was not going anywere?
Dashed hopes. Broken dreams. Rarely can you point to the exact moment when a player declines, rarely is the fall so precipitous. Yet Zizou played the part of McBeth, setting the stage for a Greek drama where Achilles shoots his own heel.
France eaked by a physical Portugal side and traded blows with Italy in the final. After a 1-1 end to regulation, the two sides appeared destined for penalty kicks until a Zidane header forced a brilliant reaction save from Buffon. Could France when it? Just when your hopes raised up, a moment of insanity followed…
Italy would win on penalty kicks, with David Trezeguet hitting the post. After the match, the media feasted on Materazzi. The presshounds latched onto the tatooed Italian central defender – the tagline read “what did he say to provoke Zidane?” Provoke. Taunt. The reaction could not be Zidane´s fault, could it?
The media speculated that Materazzi insulted Zidane with an ethnic slur, but the Italian cleared (?) his name with a run-of-the-mill sister insult. Despite the terrible ending, Zidane was voted player of the tournament. Zidane apologized to “the children,” but never reconciled with Materazzi.
Zidane has done charity work in Algeria and currently has a consultant (read: PR monkey in suit) position at Madrid. He has speculated as to becoming technical director, but fails to meet the job description – yelling at Perez that he´s spending too much money and then dodging various airborne objects such as chairs and/or plates.
Despite his current humble trappings, Zidane´s career left a dizzying mix of manic highs and soul crushing lows. And I count myself grateful for having seen it, breathed it, and lived it as it happened.