I don’t remember the first time I saw him, but I was young and he looked old. Until he got the ball at his feet. Then he was just incredible.
I was a big fan of Italian football in my youth. The Sunday live games on Channel 4 with all its exotic players; Batistuta, Recoba, Nedved, Ronaldo, Maldini and the sideburns of Del Piero. But there was one who stood out. One who was different. He didn’t have the crazy hairstyles, the sparkling studs in the ears or the flashy white boots. He didn’t collapse in a heap at the slightest touch, gesticulate at referees or play to the crowd. He didn’t fit in with the polished stereotype of a Serie A superstar but there was certainly nothing ugly about the way he played.
Zinedine Zidane. An immigrant’s son from the suburbs of Marseille and the greatest footballer I have had the pleasure to watch.
Football is about simple things; control, movement, passing. Zidane was a master of all three. His ability to control a ball was a joy to watch. Left foot, right foot, outside of the boot, knee, chest, in the air, along the ground, under pressure. It didn’t matter. With one touch it was under his power and before you could blink he was off in another direction, the opposition lost to his quick turn and ability to change the flight of the ball with the deftest of touches. And once that ball was his, there was a confidence within the team, within the crowd, that something was about to happen.
It surprises me that many forget his unbelievable skill on the ball. Perhaps it was his lack of personal flair and showmanship that the likes of Christiano Ronaldo possesses in abundance. Zidane instead a seemingly very humble, quiet man. His persona didn’t ooze the confidence of a player in possession of the most enviable of talent. But he had it and he had it in spades. He must have been a nightmare to play against. There was no clue as to what he would do next. There was no real favourable side to play him onto. He could cut inside, go outside or, sometimes, just straight through, the ball constantly under his control with the fewest of touches. He could outfox opponents without even touching the ball so impressive were his fakes and dummies. But while he made the best of players look ordinary as they clawed at thin air, Zidane off to terrorise the next that stood in his path, he did it with such class. There was no mocking, no ego, no arrogance that tarnish so many of today’s greats. It was just the way it was, this ability he had. In his mind it didn’t make him special or different, he just played and did it and it worked.
But football is not about one man and Zidane knew that. He was a team player through and through and his work ethic was staggering. He was incredibly fit and strong and had devastating pace, an all-round athlete. I don’t remember a game where Zidane shirked his responsibilities. He was everywhere; defending, attacking, mopping up in the middle, supporting, making runs, creating space. The more pressure his team was under, the harder he worked. The offspring of immigrant parents, Zidane was aware at an early age that hard work brought rewards, something that never left him no matter how much success came his way. Indeed, against England in Euro 2004 he ran so much he was sick from the exertion before slotting an injury time penalty winner.
Talking of goals, he scored some beauties. Whether you remember his bullet header against Brazil in the World Cup Final or his absolute screamer of a volley at Hampden Park in the 2002 Champions League final or any one of his goals after some audacious piece of skill to leave defenders for dead, they were outstanding. Not the most prolific of scorers but those he did score tended to be sensational and very special.
I have nothing but complete and utter admiration for Zidane. He is my footballing hero. He was sensational to watch but also an intriguing character. With all his fame, adulation and success he has had ton the pitch, I know very little about his life off it. He is clearly a private man, possibly a shy man, and has no desire to take advantage of the glamorous by-product fame can provide. He is definitely a family man, proud of his ancestry and roots and grateful to the upbringing his parents provided for him. He has values and stands by them which I have huge respect for. Some may look at the notorious headbutt incident in the 2006 World Cup final as a low point, for me it makes no difference. If we are to believe what he says, his reaction is evidence of how highly he values his family. Whatever was said, it doesn’t change my opinion of him. He is amazing, inspirational and a true professional. I envy those who got to play alongside him, I even envy those who played against him.
Zidane. My hero. A footballing genius. Merci pour les souvenirs.