Every so often, I find myself on YouTube, sifting through its vast archives for footage of Zinedine Zidane that I have not yet seen. This isn’t so easy – the night before the 2006 World Cup Final, a match which he announced would be his last as a professional, I think I watched pretty much all of it. Looking back on that evening, I must concede that I was in a form of mourning. I loved watching Zidane – who didn’t? It was the impossible elegance of his play, the way that every action seemed so thoughtful, so deliberate. Even his red cards seemed strategic. When he was sent off in that game, for a headbutt against Italy’s Marco Materazzi, there was still a feeling that it must be part of some grand design – there was no way, after all, that one of the game’s greatest architects could so casually set his drawings on fire.
In the aftermath of the final, which France would go on to lose in a penalty shoot-out, the criticisms of Zidane were curiously muted – perhaps because the match marked his departure as a player, but also, I think, because he was so revered. Saying bad things about Zizou was like walking into the Vatican and cursing the Pope. Steve McManaman alluded to this in El Macca, a fine account of his time at Real Madrid; there, he describes how no-one had anything bad to say about Zidane, even on the days when he had a poor game. It was accepted, even in that dressing-room of extraordinary players, that he was by far the best of them all. In that same book, McManaman described Zidane as a furiously private figure who seemed to flee the dressing-room as soon as the match had finished; throughout his career, there has always been something deeply unknowable about the Frenchman.
It’s remarkable how much influence Zidane assumed over his teams. Watching him tear through the three international tournaments that defined him – the World Cups in 1998 and 2006, and the European Championships in 2000, it was notable that he grew in stature with every passing round, so much so that by each final he had arguably been man of the match in almost each game. At times his play was almost hypnotic. There is a YouTube video of his performance against Spain in the Euro 2000 quarter-finals which, if seen, is still not believed. At one moment of the seven-minute highlights video – at around forty seconds in — he sprints towards the touchline, rolling his studs over the ball, with two Spain midfielders in pursuit. They are desperate to dispossess him, but they don’t get close – Zidane makes them look like drunkards chasing a cat along a rooftop. He swirls his feet around the ball at such speed you think it’s about to disappear, and then lays off a pass to a team-mate, jogging away while his markers scramble for what’s left of their self-esteem.
Zidane was such a joy to watch that it’s easy to forget how effective he actually was. He was not the most consistent of players at club level, but when the mood took him — which was still fairly often — his dominance was total. There were times when some of his colleagues almost seemed to sink into his shadow, waiting for him to take the lead. This happened most visibly for France in that ill-fated 2006 World Cup final, but had been apparent in some of the prior games that campaign — most memorably, the 3-1 victory over Spain, where he sealed the win with his team’s final goal and then promptly announced to the braying Spanish media that it was he, not they, who would choose when he retired.
Now that Zidane has long since ended his playing days, it is difficult to know precisely where to place him among the greats. He can argue that he had the most complete career – he won everything at club and international level, and scored the winning goal in both the UEFA Champions League and World Cup finals. He also had an astonishing knack for converting penalties in the most pressured of situations – this, after all, is the man who successfully attempted a Panenka against Gianluigi Buffon in 2006, and who sealed Portugal’s fate from the spot in 2006 and at Euro 2000. In that latter fixture, in a semi-final ebbing towards its close, he waited for an age in the final minute before clattering the ball into the top corner.
It is this startling sense of calm which has served him best as a manager, during a short career that he is already making look as effortless as his first touch. In just two seasons, he has twice claimed the UEFA Champions League – the first time with a somewhat fortunate run of fixtures to the final, but the second time with a vengeance – becoming the first coach to retain the trophy in its present format. He has also led Real Madrid to a La Liga title, their first in several years. He cuts a slightly more deferential figure now than in his playing days, often found standing to one side as his team celebrate their latest capture, but perhaps that curious blend of intensity and detachment is serving him just as well on the bench as it did on the field. It seems that, however he continues to be involved in football, Zidane will always float serenely above the fray.