Remembering The Greats – Zinedine Zidane: Footballing Ballet

Zinedine Zidane is both seen as one of the greatest footballers ever to grace a pitch, and a reference for some vaguely humorous jokes. Like many legendary players, Zidane’s name goes before him, meaning that, ignoring all context, when former Blackburn Rovers owner Jack Walker turned him down in 1995, saying “who needs Zidane when we’ve got Tim Sherwood?”, it has made him, the club and their Premier League winning captain a bit of a laughing stock.

Of course, thinking back now, Walker has been made to look foolish, because Zidane turned out to be pretty super-human with the ball at his feet. At that time, he was little more than a young player with potential at Bordeaux. Moving to Ewood Park would mean not moving to Turin, and Juventus, the most important decision he would ever make, where the boy from an Algerian immigrant family would become a history making man.

It says a lot that the last act of his career has never defined him. For your average player, committing such a sin as Zidane did, headbutting an opponent, at a crucial point in the biggest single sporting event on the planet, would cast whatever they had achieved before under a very dark cloud.

Zidane is in no way average, though. As he marched from the pitch in the World Cup final on July 9th 2006, the red card having been thrust high in his face, with his head down, it hadn’t quite sunk in that his footballing career was over. Then 34 years of age, his story was written, he was retiring after the game, but he ended his relationship with football by costing France the highest of honours, laying Italy defender Marco Materazzi out on the floor with one swift motion of his forehead.

All geniuses are flawed, and Zidane’s anger would hold him back in many ways across his career, but for someone as special as him, it was worth forgiving and focussing on the beauty of his play instead. His style was so unique; while Lionel Messi can walk through treacle without the ball getting stuck and Cristiano Ronaldo can turn you inside-out easier than a roundabout, “Zizou” would play football like a choreographed dance, his moves keeping him two steps ahead at all times.

It seemed no one would ever beat his transfer record when he moved from Juve to Real Madrid in 2001. At 29, £48million seemed very steep, but the player he became in Turin, a graceful number 10 with feet of wizardry, made him worth every penny. Three years earlier, he had almost single handedly guided France to a home World Cup success, one of those reasons for such leniency after the Materazzi debacle.

It took eight years, when Real paid Manchester United £80million for Ronaldo, but the record was eventually broken. Zidane hadn’t managed to inspire Real to world domination, but he was as spectacular as expected during his five year stint at the Santiago Bernabeu, particularly when lifting their ninth Champions League title in 2002, with a goal that continues to reverberate through history.

It was in Glasgow, at Hampden Park, and the opposition were Bayer Leverkusen. A long ball out left was met brilliantly by fullback Roberto Carlos, another who belongs on the highest shelf of footballing royalty, who hooked it across. There stood at the edge of the box, waiting, with a raised left leg, was Zidane. He timed the connected volley to perfection, the ball flying into the roof of the net.

For many, that was the greatest moment of Zidane’s outstanding career, but what made him great was hid propensity to make everything he did pop and sparkle with class. The perfect way to sum him up, and perhaps his most underrated show of brilliance, was in a game for Real at home to Valencia in January 2003. Pouring with rain, it was proof he could do anything, anywhere on any day.

Late on in the game, with the score was 3-1 and the victory secure, Zidane received the ball centrally. Taking a touch would have been the easy option, but a Cruyff turn made the transition easier, now he had space to run into. Gently nudging forward, he threw in some slow, but deceptive step overs before playing the most perfectly weighted pass around the defence and directly onto the foot of a moving Javier Portillo, who opened his body and swept home his first La Liga goal.

It looked so easy, but the motion in which he did it was so tough, but that was Zidane. His touch, his grace, his elegance were so sumptuous, judges would be scoring him tens galore on the ballet floor.

There are many reasons Jack Walker has been ridiculed for that quote, but in fairness, most of them happened after he said it. Still, what a player to miss out on, arguably the most romantic footballer of our time.

Remembering The Greats: Alan Shearer – The Local Hero

The man himself put it best: “I’m just a sheet-metal worker’s son from Gosforth.” Alan Shearer’s was a simple faitytale story with a dash of realism, the type Hollywood would love to write. Full of grit, determination, triumphant ups and stinging downs, in the end he got to do what he always dreamt of. He scored for Newcastle United wearing the number 9 shirt, 206 times exactly, more than anyone else.

There is a ‘rags to riches’ element, in his humble Tyneside roots, but he is now both the envy and hero of everyone in the area. There is too much pigeonholing in football these days, certain criteria which defines a successful career, normally centring around the number of medals on a mantelpiece. That idea assumes every player dreams of lifting silverware and nothing else. Of course, most would tell you that is an aim, but not the be all and end all. For some playing football is enough, especially for the right team. Shearer was most definitely the exception to that rule.

It is a myth, though, that he completely turned his back on defined ‘success’. Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate to sign him for Manchester United, twice. He failed both times, Shearer signing for Blackburn Rovers first in 1992, and more famously Newcastle for a then world-record fee of £15million in 1996.

He has become the bud of jokes, particularly among Manchester United fans, for ignoring their interest and subsequently turning his back on a much more ‘successful’ career. While he definitely, in the case of the second move, put his heart first, he admits he almost signed on at Old Trafford. It should also be remembered that, when he returned home to join Newcastle and play for childhood hero Kevin Keegan, the Magpies were legitimate title contenders, as opposed to the institutionalised laughing stock they appear now.

All he wanted was to play for Newcastle, despite other temptations along the way. It took longer than he probably anticipated growing up, failing at a trial after being put in goal despite an, unsurprisingly, prolific goalscoring record in the grassroots for the fabled Wallsend Boys Club, also responsible for producing the likes of Michael Carrick and Steve Bruce. Ironically, both enjoyed that trophy-laden life in the red half of Manchester, neither pulling on a black and white shirt.

Newcastle have not been the best at spotting and nurturing their own, which is frustrating given the amount of stars who developed. Shearer was the only one to play for the club in his peak years, but he ended up at Southampton first, before Blackburn, where he won the Premier League title, his one taste of that ‘success’.

The long route home, not returning until he was 26, may take gloss off his love affair with the club somewhat. He may not match Paolo Maldini or Francesco Totti for longevity, but he still embodies everything Newcastle fans expect from both football and life. Hard work, effort, and a no-nonsense approach. Blood, sweat and tears were always part of the Alan Shearer package in some form.

Newcastle don’t look like surviving what has seemingly becoming an annual relegation battle this season. They’ve been there before, falling into the Championship in 2009 with Shearer in charge on an interim basis. Rafael Benitez in in place for a similar rescue mission, but the problems run deeper in the system. The players lack the core understanding of the emotional attachment the city and the club share, the necessity for good results to allow fans to enjoy weekends and the expectation of 100% effort all the time. This current team could use Shearer the player more than any of the sides he actually played for.

He is so much more than just a club icon, he is arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever, miles ahead in the all time top scorers charts with 260. His England record, too, stands up against most with 30 in 60 games. He played alongside some brilliant players, and fought against top strikers to be the senior man internationally, but bettered them all.

Shearer should not be cast aside or forgotten because of choices he made. He may not have played at the top level for as long as some, but he will say he chose wisely. The embodiment of everything Geordie, a fighter and a gladiator. Few did it better than him.