From the gray concrete pavements of the inner-city to the mesmerizing lights of world class stadiums; in Zinedine Zidane, we witnessed a most remarkable success story that beat all odds. In his person, he offered the embodiment of hope for disenfranchised kids in France and around the world.
His is the story of a shy boy from the rough “la Castellane” neighborhood of Marseille who survived the streets thanks only to his family’s love for him and his love for football.
And it was his simple relation with the simplest of objects—a soccer ball—that allowed this poor son of immigrant workers to one day walk with kings.
Widely regarded as one of the most gifted players to ever grace the green rectangle, Zidane was the “beautiful” in the “beautiful game.” He consistently delivered breathtaking football when others would fall flat or win ugly.
He captivated legions of fans with his patented style: deft flicks, incisive runs, precision passes, and masterful control on the ball. His acute vision on the pitch and first touch wizardry were possibly the best the world had ever known.
In addition to his technical proficiency, Zidane possessed a certain invaluable quality that would prove crucial in cementing his world-class reputation as one of the all-time greats: he knew how to win.
Throughout a long and glorious career in which he played for Europe’s top clubs and earned more than 100 caps for his national team, Zidane distinguished himself as one of the few players to have won every individual and team accolade in the book.
He won the World Cup, the Champions League, and the European Championships. He was three-time FIFA world player of the year, and two-time Golden Ball winner. He also won the highest Legion of Honor from the president of France.
But it was not just Zidane the icon that received the adoration of millions, but Zidane the man.
For all his heroic feats, he was unmistakably human in a way most of us could relate to and appreciate—and that’s what truly set him apart.
He may have been the billboard giant; but he was also the quintessential family man, the son of immigrant workers, the brother, the husband, the father of four boys.
He may have walked with kings, but he did so without losing the common touch.
At a time when meticulously-crafted imagery and public relations gimmicks are virtually obligatory in the quest for the attention of an increasingly jaded public, Zidane remained a most ordinary man and still managed to command it all.
He was never one to share in the glitz of “hair-do” Beckham or the cockiness of “camera-conscious” Henry, opting instead to be himself in all his glorious imperfections.
He never bothered to correct his receding hairline; instead, he unapologetically sported his trademark monkish head until it grew on us and became an integral and beloved part of his image.
His goal celebrations were always as dignified and composed as the manner in which he scored them.
He let his feet do the talking, and despite the global reverence he commanded, he remained shy to the point of elusiveness and soft-spoken to the point of aloofness. But even his imperfections seemed to work for him and not against him: his perceived detachment rendering him all the more enigmatic and all the more intriguing.
Zidane’s first defining moment came at the tender age of 13 when he was discovered by a scout while playing outside his apartment complex.
Since that moment, he would commit himself to a lifetime of professional training, constantly honing his unique talents to the next level, never to stop until his last game.
The culmination of his efforts brought about his second defining moment yet another 13 years later when at the age of 26, he inspired France to the country’s first ever World Cup.
Zidane scored twice in the final against fancied Brazil, setting off the nation’s largest public celebration since France was liberated from the Nazis in 1944.
The small boy from the rough Marseilles streets had lived to see a giant laser image of his face projected unto the Arc De Triumph—the symbol of French glory in the very heart of Paris.
Millions of euphoric fans packed the streets chanting “Zidane for President.”
Two years later, Zidane did it again, leading France to European Championships glory, a campaign that saw him produce a string of spellbinding performances.
And he was yet again the hero when he scored an absolute stunner during the final of the European club Champions league—the most coveted club competition in Europe. He had requested a move to Real Madrid with the stated mission of winning this competition, and just like in a fairy-tale, it was that very stunner of a goal that won it all in his first season with his new club.
With Zidane, it was never just about winning, but winning in style. For his fluid, graceful technique, he was often compared to a ballerina. He was said to be dancing on ice.
The Final Chapter Unfolds
Having done it all, Zidane decided to retire from the national team in 2004. But fate had it that there would yet be one more remarkable chapter to be played out in his career.
In his absence, the French national team was suffering miserably.
And so just like a Hollywood plot, the champ was coaxed out of retirement for the 2006 World Cup finals in order to come save the day.
Like a superhero to the rescue, he donned his blue costume and stepped back onto the pitch to take on the insurmountable task that lay before him.
Though still brisk with flashes of brilliance, few expected a miracle from the aging Zidane. After all, this was never supposed to be the French star’s World Cup, he had already savored his quota of glory.
This was supposed to be a World Cup for another player of another generation, a World Cup that would see the much talked-about up-and-comers finally claim their stake on the ultimate stage of dreams.
This was supposed to be the Brazilian Ronaldinho’s time to shine, or maybe the Argentinian Messi’s; perhaps the English Rooney’s, or the Portugese Cristiano Ronaldo’s.
And yet, it was the indefatigable superhero who was the last man standing at the end of every battle leading into the much-coveted final.
Once again, he had come through for France, and he did it on his own terms.
He had insisted on the return of Thuram and Makelele, two players who proved instrumental to France’s magnificent World Cup run.
He assumed the captaincy and took it upon himself to reinvent the team’s lost spirit: "We live together, and die together.”
He did more than wake a sleeping giant, he resurrected a dead one.
Zidane’s inspirational leadership offered the world a unique glimpse at the power of sheer determination and its place in the highest level of sport. Fueled by an exemplary fighting spirit, the ailing but talented French squad was able to find its rhythm and outfox its younger opponents.
Suddenly, France found itself immersed in a beautiful dream that brought back the spirit of 1998; and once more, they had the genius of Zidane to thank for it.
Zidane’s rallying cry came after a sluggish start to the campaign that saw France unofficially written off as serious contenders in both the French and international press. It was just in time for the first do-or-die game against Spain.
The spark that was needed came from the most unlikely of sources: Spain’s top newspaper Marca.
Knowing that Zidane would retire upon France’s elimination from the World Cup and emboldened by Spain’s scintillating form in the group stages, the paper proudly exclaimed in its headline: “We’re going to retire Zidane!”
Spain did not retire Zidane. Instead, the incensed and combative Zidane retired Spain. He led France to a 3-1 victory, scoring the third goal in vengeful matador style.
The Spanish bull collapsed, and Zidane stood tall.
Next was Brazil.
Going into the World Cup, the Samba boys were the most celebrated team of the tournament. It was said that Brazil was the best team in the world, and Brazil’s reserves, the second best—a hint at the depth of available talent at coach Carlos Alberto Pareirra’s disposal.
But when it came down to the 11 versus 11, it was Zidane who danced the Samba with the ball.
In one of the most enthralling individual performances of World Cup history, Zidane outclassed Brazil’s highly-rated stars with his supreme control of the ball. Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and the rest were all left stunned in the aftermath of the biggest upset in the Tournament.
Brazil went home, and Zidane remained.
Then it was on to Portugal and its undefeated coach Felipe Scolari.
“Big Phil” had never lost a game in two straight World Cups. But if there ever was a man to reverse fortunes, it was Zinedine Zidane.
Henry was awarded an early penalty, and Zidane stepped up to take it. Ricardo took his position; this was the goalkeeper who had denied three spot-kicks from England’s best only a few days before.
But not Zidane; the French captain struck the ball with trademark confidence, beating the diving Ricardo.
Portugal went home, and Zidane remained.
The English press taunted their own players suggesting that Zidane ought to give the English stars a lesson on how to take a successful penalty. Elsewhere, all the attention was on the final.
In a testament to Zidane’s remarkable impact on the sport, the game against Italy was widely referred to by the press as “Zidane’s last match,” obscuring the fact that it was also the final of the World Cup.
Zidane’s fairy tale had reached its zenith. Few outside of Italy could resist craving a dreamlike finish for the sport’s ace: a World Cup trophy and a Golden Ball award in his last professional game ever.
The ultimate swan song was certainly within reach now more than ever. He had come this far. Who would have thought that at the close of his career, the 34 year old stalwart would once again be the protagonist of the greatest show on earth- no differently than he had been eight long years ago when at the helm of his career?
The day finally came and a billion people tuned in. Berlin’s Olympic stadium was a sight to behold. Fans crammed in, and dozens of VIP guests including President Jacques Chirac and former President Bill Clinton took their seats.
Zidane started the game in classic fashion.
France was awarded a seventh minute dubious penalty, and Zidane teed up the ball. Barely taking a couple of steps forward, he chipped the ball past Buffon, the tenacious Italian goalkeeper who would be voted the tournament’s best.
Zidane’s chip was exquisite as it was audacious. Cool as a cucumber, Zidane caressed the ball into the net—the dream finish his career so deserved seemed ever so close.
But in the 19th minute, a powerful Marco Materazzi header tied the game for Italy, and the suspense grew.
Italy outplayed France for the rest of the first half, with the tides changing the other way for the second. At the end of regulation time, the two sides remained deadlocked.
An opportunity that could have changed everything came in extra time; Zidane pounced on a cross ball and thrust a bullet header that brought the stadium to its feet—but alas, Buffon reacted impressively and thumped the ball over the crossbar.
How different the headlines would have been had that ball gone in, Zidane and his fans will be left mulling that thought forever. Perhaps then, the tragedy to follow would never have taken place and Zidane the hero would undoubtedly have become Zidane the living legend.
Instead, destiny had it that the single-most bizarre episode of Zidane’s career unfold in the last 10 minutes of it, on this of all stages and with a record one billion-plus people watching.
Human After All
Following an uneventful French attack, Zidane and Italian defender Marco Materazzi seemed to exchange a few words as they jogged back up the field.
Then suddenly and without warning, Zidane took a step back and rammed the crown of his head into Materazzi’s chest as forcefully as he could, flooring the 6’4” giant instantly. Television replays stunned onlookers and sent shockwaves around the world.
As Franz Beckenbauer will tell you, Zidane is generally a calm player, on the pitch as he is off it.
Nonetheless, the mercurial Frenchman has shown a history of losing his cool on extreme occasions—and when he does, bad things happen.
As a professional footballer, Zidane amassed a total of 14 red cards. A head-butt against German Jochen Kientz in 2000 saw him serve a five-game suspension.
But this was a special night for Zidane; Materazzi must have said something extremely offensive to upstage him.
Following days of media speculation, Zidane broke his silence: Materazzi had insulted his mother and sister.
That be as it may, Zidane’s moment of madness was simply inexcusable. For this fan however, though inexcusable, it was understandable.
Zidane so far had struck down every obstacle that stood in his way, and this occasion would be no different.
He had struck down pompous Spain and mighty Brazil. He put a screeching halt to Scolari’s record run by vanquishing his indomitable goalkeeper, Ricardo.
And now, Zidane would strike down a challenge of a different breed: indignity.
He squared up to the man whose nasty reputation as a bone-crunching firebrand superseded him, the man notorious for enkindling fear and intimidation in the hearts of his rivals.
The son of immigrants from la Castellane struck him down and stood tall. He struck down the man who had offended the women of his family.
But like a Greek melodrama, that was only half the story. Zidane did defeat Materazzi, but in the process, the real culprit eluded him once more.
Zidane is reported to have described himself as a “non-practising Muslim.” That of course is a personal choice that I can only respect. But on that one occasion, I could not help but wish that he had heeded at least one important Hadith—advice of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Prophet Muhammad warned his companions, “The strongest man among you is not he who can subdue others, but he who can subdue himself in a moment of anger.”
As Zidane walked off the pitch, he took one final look behind him. I can only imagine what must have been going through his head.
For that moment, time must have stood still.
There was the magnificent grotesque stadium teeming with seventy six thousand roaring fans and there were the hundreds of camera lenses bringing in a billion more. There were the blinding lights and the thousands of waving flags. There were his peers ready to resume battle without him.
This was it. This was the last moment.
He looked at what he would leave behind him forever. He walked past the World Cup trophy, not so much as glancing at it, though ever-conscious of its presence, as it lay so close within reach yet so far. He walked down the steps making his way towards the tunnel. Thinking he was finally out of view though still within scope of one camera, he unleashed a tear.
He would walk into the dressing room to face the only man in the world he still could not conquer: the temperamental Zinedine Zidane.
Life After Zidane
I try to take something positive out of what really was a traumatic experience for me. I am a diehard fan of Zizou, and will remain so forever. It broke my heart to see one of football’s most decorated legends end his career on such a sour note- especially taking into consideration how close he got to ending it in flying colors.
Indeed, Zidane’s tragedy does provide a powerful lesson in life: never take your success for granted; the difference between the height of glory and the depth of shame can be a single moment of folly.
”If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow,” says a Chinese proverb.
”By the token of time, verily man is in loss… except for those who abide by patience,” says the Holy Qur’an.
Take heed my children, the same head that can catapult you into galactic stardom in 1998 can condemn you to the annals of infamy in 2006. Figuratively no less than literally, it all depends on how you use your head.
But Zidane’s phenomenal existence must never be reduced to a mere parable.
He must not be remembered for this single moment of madness when he has provided us with over a decade of sheer ecstasy. His amazing and unexpected accomplishments in the 2006 world cup must not be lost on us. I take solace in his being awarded the tournament’s Golden Ball.
While Zidane no longer dominates footballing headlines as he had before his retirement, we must not forget his indellible mark on the game and its culture.
Zidane: the nominal Muslim, the son of Algerian immigrants, the French hero, and above all the intelligent footballer who conquered Europe and the world, for me will always be the small boy who struggled to beat the odds, counting only on his creative genius and will power.
Zidane was a master of his trade who elevated football to a new standard bringing his nation and football fans all over the world unprecedented glory and joy.
I gained immense respect for the French who stood in solidarity with their hero refusing to kick him when he was down after the infamous red card that cost them all so much. I can only add my voice to the grateful and forgiving French fans when I say, “Merci Zizou, le footballer eternel.”