Zinedine Zidane: The superhuman dancer with a hard b*stard edge

Joe Williams
Zinedine Zidane France

Who’s this then?
Zinedine Yazid Zidane was born in Marseille in 1972. A 6’ 1” progressive attacking midfielder widely acclaimed as the best player on earth when at his peak, he is now 48 and after being one of the best footballers in the world, is now one of the best managers in the world.

Everything has come up Zizou.

He actually only played for four clubs in a 17-year career. Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid. In 2001 he was the most expensive transfer in the history of football at 77.1 million Euros moving from Juve to Real Madrid.

His debut for Cannes came when he was just 17 and in his first season he helped them to fourth, their highest post-war position. By the time he moved to Bordeaux he’d played 71 times and scored six goals.

From 1992 to 1996 he made a huge impression and was capped in 1994, the first of 108 for his country. Remarkably, Kenny Dalglish wanted to sign him in 1995 but Blackburn Rovers owner Jack Walker reportedly said “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” Why indeed.

At the start of the 1996 season, according to football agent Barry Silkman, Zidane was offered to Newcastle United for £1.2 million, but the club turned down the offer after watching him, claiming that he was not good enough for the Premier League!! This really showed how narrow and insular English football often still was in the mid-90s.

Instead of coming to England, Zizou chose a far better option and went to Juventus for £2.98 million, nearly half the fee Cannes received for him. I’m not sure how he’d actually gone down in value by 50%. Juve, then the Champions League winners got a bargain and he made a huge impression right away winning Serie A.

But it was at the 1998 World Cup where most of us in the UK were really hit smack in the face by his brilliance as he won the tournament with France, scoring twice in the final.  Now 26 and hitting the peak of his prime, he was absolutely, mesmerically, imperious.

His Juve record was 209 games and 31 goals before he moved to Real for that massive world record fee. He often wore the number 5 shirt which, to some of us, was a travesty as he was no centre-half, though probably could have been really good at it. He was a 10 and played with that number for France.

Five seasons, 225 games and 49 goals later, he retired. His final professional game was, in typically grand style, the World Cup final v Italy. He scored the first with a panenka and famously, in extra-time, headbutted Marco Materazzi with as much power, accuracy and panache as he did everything else. It was to be his 14th career red card and his last action as a player. What a way to go!

It shouldn’t be forgotten that he was a sodding hard bastard who you fecked with at your peril. The product of an upbringing in a tough area of Marseille, La Castellane, he wouldn’t tolerate an ounce of sh*t from anyone. 14 career red cards is proof of his willingness to transgress the laws.

Zidane finished with 15 trophies and titles and an incredible 84 personal awards, including the 1998 Ballon d’Or and the Légion d’honneur. He was the first person of non-French origin to be officially declared France’s favourite Frenchman.

This was all amazing. After retiring in 2006, he showed little initial enthusiasm to manage until in 2014 when he took over Real’s reserve side and in 2016, the first team. Like a story in a comic he promptly won three consecutive Champions League titles and a La Liga, then quit. Then rejoined in March 2019, 10 months later, and promptly won the league and cup double this season and may yet pick up another Champions League title. It is as though he is super human.


Why the Love?
The Scottish vernacular “the boy’s a dancer” is wholly appropriate to Zizou. He was an extraordinary mover, capable of elegant twists and turns, sometimes in mid-air, as he takes a ball on his chest, lands, shifts his weight around a defender and is away and gone, the ball never out of control for even the slightest moment.

If you watch what he does in slow-motion, his feet work more like a ballet dancer, pivoting, flicking, nudging and caressing the ball, never leaving it alone for a moment. He could perform a pivot which would take him from ten o’clock to two o’clock in a heartbeat, leaving the defender not just floundering but some distance away, as Zizou powers off. One moment he’s tight to him, the next he’s in the next post code. Extraordinary.

Zidane all but invented that dancing on the ball, while turning a full circle move, he was master of the drag back back heel sideways pass. He could leap into the air, leg fully extended, control the ball with one touch, bring it down and lay it off, all in one liquid manoeuvre.

Regardless of anything he achieved with club and country, he is loved and admired so much purely for his art. He played football beautifully. If you think about how he played, it does not bear comparison to anyone else. He made a way of playing that was entirely his own that seems to have no roots in the past and as such, was entirely original. Incredible. He was incomparable.

Zidane is loved for his superhuman creativity, for just beating a man, for passing, even for how he controlled a ball.

And there were goals too. Watch any of his penalties, especially in high pressure games. He stands, eyes narrowed like Lee Van Cleef before a gunfight. There is something of the bandit, of the rebel with a knife between his teeth about him. He could even do a copious vomit before striking the ball and do it with a casual informality. If anyone can make being sick cool, it was Zidane.

Blessed with a model’s high cheekbones and hooded, hawk-like eyes, his brooding expression doesn’t change much throughout a game, not until he scores. He has a seriousness, an inscrutability that fascinates and hypnotises. He is one of the few footballers who actually looks like he is thinking deeply about the game while playing the game.

Zidane smiles only rarely. Even when losing his temper, attacking a player and getting sent off, his expression doesn’t change from its expressionless brooding. It’s not that he never smiles, it’s just that smiling, for him, is a premium product and not to be frivolously dispensed.

Only Zizou could have a movie made about him which largely consists of slow-motion footage of him looking around and sweating and for it still to be so compelling. That’s what Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait does, with a great Mogwai soundtrack.

At over six feet, he’s tall and broad, and yet he played the game like someone with a low centre of gravity who was difficult to dispossess and had perfect balance, never seeming to fall over. Again, slow motion footage of him reveals how perfectly he places his feet at all times to both receive and play the ball. It is as though his brain has worked out four of five steps ahead, before he’s even received it. There are even moments when, like any dancer, it looks like he’s performing moves purely for fun, for the sheer physical joy of it.

Moving into management, he kept this same degree of studious composure, sometimes an almost zen-like stillness about him on the touchline that has led some cynics to wonder what he’s actually doing as a coach. Does he actually do anything? The epitome of still waters run deep, there are still moments when he will explode, even causing Carlo Ancelotti to raise an eyebrow!

Because of his innate reserve and occasional violent outbursts, there’s alway an air of danger around him, in the same way that the dog which guards a scrap yard that doesn’t bark at you when you approach it, is the most dangerous.

Never was the world cool more apt for any player or manager.


What the people love
No-one could not love ZZ’s way of playing football. I showed some clips of him to my missus, who is a football civilian. She frowned. “I’ve never seen a footballer do anything like that before,” she said. And that’s pretty much every one of us so it was no surprise to get plenty of Zizou love this week.

“Volcanic artist”

“Eruption of genius”

“Or venting chaos”

“Zizou never talks about himself or his philosophy or ‘the press’. It’s like he doesn’t need to.”  – Georgie Bingham, broadcaster.

“How long have you got?! For me, the greatest in my lifetime. Commitment, attitude, leadership, drive, work rate, determination, selflessness, could make magic from nothing and that touch…. oh that touch Smiling face with heart-shaped eyes Scored a fair few belters along the way too. Magical footballer.” – Eilidh Barbour, broadcaster.

“The film is a masterpiece! What struck me is how quiet he is for the entire game. He barely speaks to a single teammate other than Roberto Carlos. It’s just like he is on a tranquil lake, while everyone else is on rough seas. The flash of violence that comes is the current that always ran through him; Marseille. Does that make sense? It was like you could take the boy off the streets but not the streets out the boy. I loved him for that. He was real in the most raw way but it made him so compelling.” – Hugh Woozencroft.

“I went on holiday to a place in the South of France called Pegomas.  Over the very, very modest football pitch in the village there was a large painting of Zidane. He lived there when he was sixteen and used to train on the pitch. It was nice that this part of traditional France wanted to celebrate Zidane.”

“Not many footballers are cool enough to have movie with a Mogwai soundtrack”

“I asked my fiancée (who is French) who the French people would vote for as president if they could vote for anyone. Without hesitation, she replied ‘Zizou’.”

“The pre-penalty vomit v England in 04 was special.”

“Saw Mogwai play to the film live at The Barbican, it was phenomenal.”

“How lucky we all were to see him play. I mean, what a magnificent player he was. He had no right doing the things he could do on a football pitch. Unconventional, almost awkward at times, but as graceful as a ballerina as well. A symphony of poise and elegance at his best.”

“Sent off more times than Vinnie Jones in his career!!!”

“Even his red cards are majestic.”

“Saw him live once (Slovenia v France). He was literally EVERYWHERE I looked. Amazing. Best player I’ve ever seen.”

“Always amazed me how someone with feet that big could be so graceful, what a player.”

“The greatest player I’ve ever seen. He dragged France to the 06 final and so deserved a second World Cup. For me however, it would have been a bigger travesty had he not stood up to what Materazzi said. He was the first player I fell in love with. An absolute maestro. And to think he was supposedly in the frame to manage United not so long ago. Je t’aime à la folie, Zizou.”

“Magic. Just bloody magic. Played football like one of those old Aikido masters, just gliding about making opponents look daft.”

“He’s got a great name. One Z in a name is cool enough, but two? Man.”

“Moved like a gazelle, uniquely marrying the build of a centre back to the subtlety, poise and finesse of a number 10.”

“An absolute Rolls Royce of player. Scored the best ever Champions League Final goal and was responsible for the greatest exit from the professional stage (headbutt then walk of shame past the World Cup). Named his son after the great Enzo Francescoli, his hero growing up in Marseille”

“Was on honeymoon in NYC for the 06 WC final. Had to listen to American commentators explain why he was getting sent off. Was a weird juxtaposition laughing at them and feeling a bit sad at the ignominious way the career of a legend finished. That CL final goal though.”

“Couple of nice headers against jittery Brazil. Legend at Juve, then ditched them to win the Champs league with Real, only to lose in the semis to…Juve. But then won it with the most beautiful UCL Final goal, peach of a left foot volley against Leverkusen.”

“His most memorable game in the World Cup had to be his Masterclass against Brazil in the ‘06 quarters. All followers of the Serie A (except Inter ultras) cheered when he decked Materazzi with that head butt. Sensational manager at Real too.”

“Never played in the Prem. Can’t have been that good.”

“He looked so ordinary, then he’d just do something that took your breath away. Just to watch him and ignore the game going on was an absolute joy, so much time.”

“He even managed to be sick with calm and grace.”

“ZZ is the best ever to do it for me, John. It was like he could slow down time.”

“Where art and science meet on a football pitch.”


Four great moments
That headbutt. Power. Speed. Technique

Chest control while on the run. No-one was better

Panenka in a World Cup Final? Of course.

One of the best volleys ever. ZZ. Top corner.


What now?

He’s got the Champions League game against Manchester City to play, currently they are 2-1 down with the away leg to play.

He is contracted to Madrid until 2022 and won La Liga this year, five points ahead of Barcelona and 17 ahead of Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, with a much improved defensive performance, letting in only 25 goals and losing only three times.

Barring a catastrophe, it seems unlikely he’ll be moved on by the club any time soon, so its all down to whether he wants to keep on keeping on as the manager. If he doesn’t, the world of football will be at his feet, offering him jobs.

A truly remarkable player who, let’s not forget, played in a far more physical era and danced through it was grace and beauty. Viva Zizou!

John Nicholson