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Dazzling Zidane

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A dazzling name. A dazzling player. Zinedine Zidane rolls off the tongue as smoothly as his studs rolled over the ball mid-pirouette time after time to produce that turn christened in his honour.

Everything about Zidane flowed. His elegant style, the multitudinous accolades, the abundant trophies.

Scorer in a World Cup final victory, scorer in a Champions League final victory (and what a goal), Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year winner.

There were times when the force of his play and personality alone dragged his club and country from mediocrity to magnificence.

He was called God by Thierry Henry, The Master by Pele, and The King by Michel Platini. You almost get the sense Jesus Christ would be miffed at being left out of comparisons. Mind you, for all his achievements Zidane never played on water.

But there will always be a but with Zidane. Rather, a headbutt. One administered to the chest of Marco Materazzi in the Frenchman's final game as a professional.

That happened to be during extra-time in the 2006 World Cup final against Italy with the scores level. Zidane always was a man for big moments on big occasions.

He was sent off, after a nudge from officials by the touchline with access to television replays, and France lost the subsequent penalty shootout.

Having pretty much single-handedly got his nation to the final, with goals in the last-16 against Spain and semi-final against Portugal, Zidane, who opened the scoring in the Berlin final with an outrageous Panenka penalty, was pictured walking past the golden trophy, head bowed, on his way to an early bath never to kick a football with meaning again.

Ignominy? Yes. But there was a kernel of empathy to his devilment. After insults about his mother and sister, Zidane snapped and reacted in a manner that chimed with his passion for the game. The mum card is a certifiable wind-up tactic. (For the record, Materazzi denies the provocation involved family members.)

Zidane, handed a £3,260 fine and required to do three days' community service, regrets the act but will never apologise to Materazzi.

It was an exclamation mark on an extraordinary career, which was initially brought to Europe's attention with a breakthrough season for Bordeaux in 1995-96.

According to Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson had been made aware of his countryman's talents a few years earlier. He recommended Zidane to his manager, who instead opted to move for a different player.

When Zidane did come to Old Trafford it was with Juventus in the 1996-97 Champions League. He demonstrated what Ferguson had missed out on with a display that strangled the life out of United's young side. I was in the stadium that night, back then a rare European treat against one of the continent's greatest clubs.

Perhaps that sense of the unknown added to the mysticism of Zidane's majesty in midfield. It was a special evening.

Juventus beat United home and away that season but the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, even Ryan Giggs, learnt what was required and next season earned a group stage victory.

The subsequent year saw the Treble after victory over Juventus in the semi-finals. The early beatings by the Italians, with Zidane to the fore, had pushed United to a higher level.

Zidane himself reached the Champions League finals in 1997 and 1998, losing both to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid respectively.

But that latter summer he found solace with a remarkable triumph for his country. Unexpectedly, France won the World Cup in the Stade de France, defeating Brazil 3-0 thanks to a brace from Zidane, who twice used his head to positive effect.

One million people celebrated the victory on the Champs-Elysees with a huge image of the man-of-the-match projected onto the Arc de Triomphe along with the words 'Merci Zizou'.

Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards followed.

Two years later he was player of the tournament at France's victorious European Championship, having scored a delicious free-kick against Spain in the quarters, and a golden goal winner in the semis against Portugal. Big moments, big occasions, big player.

In July 2001, with a couple of Scudetti in his luggage, Zidane moved to Real Madrid for a world record £46million fee; the shining star in a galaxy of talents.

The Galacticos never quite lit up world football as planned but Real did win the Champions League in 2002 to complete Zidane's personal collection. His winning goal in that final against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park was a moment to cherish.

Tracking a falling ball with laser precision on the edge of the area he swung a left boot with perfect timing to rocket a volley into the top corner. It still seems just as audacious now.

The following year he won his first and only La Liga crown. In all, there were 681 club appearances and 125 goals; 108 international caps and 31 goals; three World Player of the Year titles.

But the statistics do not show Zidane's unique ability to manipulate space on the pitch, to dance with the ball at his feet, to find a pass, to score with wondrous technique, to step up on the most important stages.

Among all the tributes from his peers, one from Zlatan Ibrahimovic stands out. 'Zidane was from another planet,' he said. 'When Zidane stepped on to the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple.'

That was the story of the 2006 World Cup. Despite his headbutt Zidane was named the tournament's best player and had become only the fourth man in history to score three goals in World Cup final matches. A silver lining for a gilded individual.

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