It was the final of the 2001-2002 Uefa Champions League at Hampden Park. Real Madrid were making their 12th appearance in a UCL final, while Bayer Leverkusen were making their first.
Raul gave Madrid the lead in the eighth minute, but Lucio equalised just five minutes later. The game remained square till the 45th minute when Roberto Carlos lofted the ball towards the edge of the box. Zinedine Zidane received the ball, tracked it with laser precision and then volleyed it into the top corner with his weaker left foot. The crowd was awestruck as Zizou had just given Real a winning moment. A big player orchestrated a memorable moment at a memorable occasion.
Even before that, in the 1998 Fifa World Cup – hosted by Les Blues – Zidane proved decisive in the final. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic says, “Zidane was from another planet. When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the other 10 guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple.”
It truly did seem that he was harnessing all his skills and energy for the epic final against the Selecao, Brazil. Surprisingly, the master of the pirouette turn didn’t use his immaculate dribbling that made him a French hero, earning him the ‘Légion d’honneur’.
It was the aerial supremacy against the Brazilians which assisted him in finding the back of the net twice with his head in a 3-0 routing of the golden-age Brazil team. A big player against a bigger opposition created the biggest moment for his nation — France’s first ever World Cup final victory.
The Euro 2000 is our next destination. France had already beaten Denmark and Czech Republic in their group matches to qualify along with Netherlands for the knockout stages. Les Blues faced a stern test against the Spaniards in the quarter-final.
Zidane scored a stunning free-kick to give his country the lead. Later, Gaizka Mendieta’s penalty restored parity, but France were back in front before the interval after a superb run from Patrick Vieira was capped with an even better finish from Youri Djorkaeff. France then went on to be hailed as the champions and the player of the tournament was Zizou. He created another big moment for his country with his leadership role from the back of the strikers. A maestro of his own class.
But all great men have a strange mineral in their sap; some call it madness, while some call it the side effects of ingenuity. In Zidane’s case, it wasn’t only a ‘but’ in his career, it was a ‘headbutt’.
By 2006, Zidane had won everything and had announced an impending post-tournament retirement. He had enjoyed a career full of accolades. But his hunger for more wasn’t satisfied.
The last-16 encounter against Spain was a ‘Zizou show’. David Villa’s penalty was cancelled by Franck Ribery’s goal and then with 10 minutes remaining, Zidane’s match-winning greatness stepped in. His free-kick swirled in for Patrick Vieira to head home a second for France, while his clinical finish after beating a diving Carles Puyol to slide home the third beyond his Madrid teammate Iker Casillas at his near post was the knockout blow.
He once again rose to the occasion with an inch-perfect assist for Henry, in a match in which Zidane and his team dominated Brazil, to score the match-winning goal against Brazil in the quarter-final. Against Portugal, it was his shot from the spot which was enough to deny his opposition a place in the final.
And then came the final of that World Cup; the final match of Zidane’s career and the chance for him to shine one last time — but a headbutt dug into the chest of Marco Materazzi in the second half of extra time ended all hopes for the French hero and his side. He was shown a red card and then the world witnessed an emotional walk back.
He strolled past the golden trophy with his head bowed as if he was saying sorry to his nation. France lost the game right there mentally, and it showed when they came out to hit penalties against the Italians.
Zizou was named the player of the tournament, surprisingly beating Fabio Cannavaro to the award. Zidane, handed a £3,260 fine and required to do three days’ community service, regretted the act but will never apologise to Materazzi.
From Cannes to Bordeaux and then from Juventus to Madrid, if we surf through his illustrious career, we would always detect a man sprinting with the ball streaming through defenders like a river curving past the rocks.
Jean Varraud, a former player who discovered Zidane at a three-day training camp at the CREPS (Regional Centre for Sports and Physical Education) – one of the many football training facilities run by the French Football Federation – says that, “He’d go past one, two, three, five, six players — it was sublime. His feet spoke with the ball.”
Eric Cantona says that former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was made aware of Zidane’s abilities and he suggested his compatriot to the manager, who instead chose to sign a different player. It was the 1996 Champions League group match where Zidane displayed his worth against the Red Devils.
He led his team to victory against United, both home and away, with the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Gigg making up the opposition. At that time, it was the sense of unknown that added to the mysticism of Zidane’s majesty in the midfield.
Zidane, a player Henry termed as god, legendary Pele called The King and Michel Platini referred to as The Master, dragged his country and club from mediocrity to magnificence single-handedly. He was meant to be a man for the biggest occasions. He was meant to serve his potential equally well, and no one can deny that he did just that.
Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano encapsulates his elegance, “He dominates the ball, he is a walking spectacle and he plays as if he had silk gloves on each foot. He makes it worthwhile going to the stadium — he’s one of the best I have ever seen.”
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Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2014.