As the ball is played into his feet, the camera is focused on Zinedine Zidane, as it has been for the last 70 minutes. Before he traps the ball with the toe of his boot, sending it a yard in front of him but no more, Zidane flicks up his eyes and spots something of interest, like a hawk eyeing a field mouse a hundred feet below. Within half a second he has opened his body to the ball, before caressing a pass with his instep. We don’t see the path of the ball, but Zidane’s movement and expression indicate that it has found its intended target. Of course it has.
The scene is taken from Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a documentary produced by filmmakers Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon. At times it is a difficult watch, but it encapsulates not just the technical ability and laconic style of Zidane, but also his personality. His facial expressions – faint pleasure, anger, exasperation and brief moments of relaxation – give away the pattern of the match as well as his movements. There is space too for his flaws: Zidane is sent off in the final minutes of the match following a fight.
By then (the film was shot in April 2005), Zidane is coming to the end of his career. His body and mind have aged beyond their peak. There is room for moments of sumptuous brilliance, and the Frenchman still has the capacity to be the best player on the pitch, but he is a year away from retiring from club football amid a sea of well-wishing banners at the Bernabeu. The final departure from his playing career would come two months later, in altogether different circumstances.
Zidane is one of the greatest players in the history of the game; that statement is so obvious it lacks any punch. Pele calls him “the master”, while Carlo Ancelotti believes him to be the most technically able footballer of all time. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and Mesut Ozil have all named him either the best player of their generation or their idol.
“When Zidane stepped onto the pitch,” Zlatan Ibrahimovic once said, “the ten 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 teammates became like him when he was on the pitch.”
The youngest of five children and therefore a shy child, Zidane first caught the attention of scouts from Cannes, and was signed at the age of 14. His technique shone even aged 18 and 19, and Zidane helped the club achieve their highest ever Ligue Un finish before leaving for Bordeaux. After leading them to the UEFA Cup final in 1996 and being named Ligue Un Player of the Year, he was signed by Juventus at the age of 25.
In a team with Alessandro Del Piero, Deschamps, Edgar Davids, Ciro Ferrara and Pippo Inzaghi and under the stewardship of Marcelo Lippi, Zidane flourished. He won consecutive Serie A titles and played in two successive Champions League finals, but failed to win the trophy. A world-record transfer to Real Madrid would quench that thirst.
Zidane’s international career was even more successful. He finished with 31 goals from 108 caps, is currently fourth on Les Bleus’ all-time list for both, and was a leader of the team that won back-to-back major tournaments in 1998 and 2000. He is one of only four players to score in multiple World Cup finals.
Zidane’s magnificence inevitably led to an array of awards, but one meant more than most. In 2004, a poll conducted by French tabloid newspaper Journal du Dimanche saw him voted the most popular Frenchman of all time.
“To be recognised by a whole country is incredible,’ Zidane told the Guardian in 2004. “This is massive. Before it was hard to talk about certain things, especially if like me you came from a difficult area or from an immigrant background. But now it tells you how France has changed and is changing. It’s a message to everybody – politicians, the kids I grew up with, ordinary French people – about what can be done.”
As Zidane grew into his twenties and succeeded as a player, French culture was in turmoil. Unemployment was high, and a growing far-right political movement threatened to exacerbate social discord. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National party, accused the French national team of being “artificial”. He used a struggling side as a metaphor for the country as a whole.
The World Cup changed all that. Rather than discord, the national team represented community spirit and social integration. “I think what it was really down to was that French people could relate to the team,” said Thierry Henry, quoted in a BBC Sport article on the cultural impact of that team. “Because of the different heritages through the team, whoever you were and whatever your background, you could see yourself in that team. It was an amazing feeling.”
Above them all stood Zinedine ‘Zizou’ Zidane, the son of an Algerian immigrant whose face was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe while the crowds offered their adulation. Zidane, the Frenchman who had never changed, who had never pretended to be something he wasn’t, who had never been ashamed of where his life began in La Castellane, Marseille. Even at Real Madrid, among the glitz and glamour of fame, Zidane always spoke of La Castellane.
Zidane has never been interested in political point-scoring, instead taking an actively apolitical stance regarding his legacy. Yet so often it is those who try to avoid action that actually make the biggest difference. “Zidane president,” the crowds in Paris chanted on that glorious July night. Sport had provided a catalyst for a wider social unification over disunion. Zidane had done more than most.
After retiring from international football after Euro 2004, Zidane was persuaded to change his mind a year later. “In France, everyone realised that God exists,” Henry said. “And now he is back in the French national team. God is back – and there is little else to say.”
The divine reference from Henry carries weight, for there are few players with the omnipotence and omniscience of Zidane in his pomp. His passing was unmatched and his physicality obvious, but his set-piece execution, goalscoring and heading made him the complete attacking midfielder. He occasionally had a tendency, particularly in his later years, to drift out of matches, but he humbly admitted his own shortcomings: “There are so many qualities missing – especially consistency. Every season, I have always had periods of patchy form.” Yet if the greatest players produce their finest moments on the biggest occasion, Zidane’s left-footed volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final can be matched only by Marco van Basten’s own volley in 1988.
But it was Zidane’s touch that elevated him so far above his peers. Arsene Wenger remembers him as a player to whom you could kick the ball in any place, at any height, at any pace within a three-yard circle, and Zidane would stop it dead. His exactness when receiving the ball, playing it with a particular spot on his boot to impart spin, curl or distance, created the time and space that allowed the rest of his genius to flourish. Luciano Moggi, Juventus’ former sporting director, described him as “a player of the future”, and that feels highly appropriate.
“For me, he is not a soccer player, he is like a classical musician. When he plays, behind his play, there is, for me, classical music,” Hidetoshi Nakata once said, and there is an obvious link to another classical art: ballet. Zidane’s Marseille Roulette, where he would drag the ball back with one foot before spinning and doing the same with the other, became his pirouette. There have been few more elegant footballers, and fewer still who stood over six feet tall.
It would be a mistake to confuse elegance with flashness, however, and a greater crime still to introduce that most ugly of 21st century words: bling. Zidane’s style was intrinsically linked to achievement, not show. At Real Madrid he was a Galactico through reputation and ability, not personality. Forever awkwardly dealing with superstardom, Zidane’s elegance left him as he left the pitch.
Nor too should we make elegance and determination unhappy bedfellows, for Zidane’s magnificence didn’t just happen by chance. As Kevin Keegan said: “He leads the orchestra. But he’s also willing to work.”
“I reached this level by sheer dint of hard work, toiling away at scores of tricks and experiments,” Zidane said after retiring. “I used to play with the ball from dawn till dusk and just kept practising. If I wasn’t playing matches, it was trying out one on one or two against two with a tennis ball. Then I used to try aiming at certain targets. That’s the only way to learn. And if I missed the target, I kept trying until I scored.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what takes me over during a game. Sometimes I just feel I have moved to a different place and I can make the pass, score the goal or go past my marker at will,” was another of Zidane’s famous quotes. After all, that is the point of hard work and practice: to make the difficult feel easy.
It is no stretch to conclude that it is this extreme determination that made Zidane so ill-prepared to deal with failure, and at least partly explains his volcanic temperament. He received 14 red cards in his career (12 of which he puts down to provocation); from headbutting Jochen Kientz of Hamburg to stamping on Saudi Arabia’s Fuad Anwar in 1998, Zidane possessed an inner rage that regularly spilled over. “Nobody knows if Zidane is an angel or a demon,” as French singer Jean-Louis Murat once said.
“It’s hard to explain but I have a need to play intensely every day, to fight every match hard,” was Zidane’s own explanation, given during an interview with the Guardian in 2004. “And this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am.”
That proved particularly prescient coming almost two years before Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi in his final game as a professional, now immortalised in statue outside Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou. Roundly criticised by sports journalists who theorised on his mental state, the simpler explanation was that Zidane was, as ever, playing on the edge and reacted to the personal abuse of his family. It was a pattern coaches at Cannes had spotted 15 years earlier.
There is very little evidence of post-incident regret from Zidane. “The reaction is always punished but if there is no provocation there is no reaction. The guilty person is the one who provokes,” he said on Canal Plus three days after the final. “If I reacted that way, it is because something bad happened. Do you really believe that ten minutes before the end of my career I would be able to make such a bad gesture? The provocation was very serious. I am a man and some words are harder to hear than actions. I would have rather been knocked down than hear that.” This was a man defending the honour of a family and childhood that forged his career and personality. The two were intertwined.
I think Aime Jacquet put it best when he said simply of Zidane: “He is 100 per cent football.” The skill level was higher than all others, but so too was his commitment to fulfilling his extraordinary potential. When a man is “100 per cent football” all elements of his character will be apparent, including the flaws.
“Zidane is a man, with all the faults of human beings,” as Lilian Thuram once reminded the French public. A human being with the technique of a footballing deity; what’s not to love?
Daniel Storey – Portrait of an Icon will be released as a book (containing eight book-only exclusive portraits) hopefully some time soon. It’s for charity, so you have to buy at least one.