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.

Remembering The Greats: Johan Cruyff – Football’s prophet

The idea that FC Barcelona can call themselves ‘More Than A Club’ is seen as little more than a pompous sense of entitlement to some, but their philosophy has defined football in three separate generations, which has rewritten the entire identity of the club. Johan Cruyff was, is and will always be the main founder of an ideology which has gone much further than the 98,000 seats inside the Camp Nou.

Upon the tragic news of his death this week, aged just 68, there were calls for Barcelona to rename their stadium after the Dutch master. Football and religion are linked together far too often these days, it is a tiresome analogy which doesn’t truly reflect the meanings of either sport or faith. In the case of Cruyff and Barça, though, it fits perfectly. Upon arrival in Catalunya, some 43 years ago, having signed as a star player from Ajax, he was greeted as a saviour, some light at the end of a dark tunnel for a region of Spain so harshly treated by the iron-fisted regime of dictator General Franco. Cruyff represented more than just a footballer.

Symbolism is another overused cliche, yet Cruyff represented everything for Barcelona, as a football club and city. He was an innovator who worked on instinct, but studied the game so profusely, allowing to set the traditions in motion. He was lightyears ahead of his time, like no-one seen before or since, the archetypal ‘modern’ player in a prehistoric game. His most famous moment, a genius piece of skill in a match for Holland against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup which has been named after him, is taught as one of the basics of the game to those so eager to learn and join the revolution which he started.

Cruyff was like a prophet, hence the acceptable use of the religion metaphor. Whenever he spoke, it was worth listening to. His personal career, both as a player for Ajax, Barça and Holland, all under coach Rinus Michels, also incredibly central to the theories of ‘total football’, and a manager of the Catalan ‘Dream Team’ in the 1990s, gave him the credence he needed. Everything sounds incredibly scientific, but what came out of his magnificent brain could barely have been simpler.

“Quality without results is pointless, results without quality is boring”, he said. Winning is and always will be the main point of football, and sport in general, but Cruyff taught better than anyone about the importance of entertainment. The trophies he won prove he was right, and that continues as Barcelona continue to dominate by following his principles.

Cruyff’s impact on a young Joan Laporta, Barça fan and future president, was vital in their latest dynasty. Exactly 30 years after the Dutchman arrived, the former starry-eyed little boy began his tenure at the top of his beloved club. Laporta, who professed to having his hair cut in the style of Cruyff such was his obsession, set about recreating his hero’s work, with his help.

Dutch flare was key, something another former Ajax prodigy, Frank Rijkaard, brought with him when he took over as manager upon Laporta’s election. It was another of Cruyff’s ‘disciples’, Pep Guardiola, who renovated and polished the style to the best effect when he stepped into the hotseat in 2008. Guardiola is the most wanted man in football right now, lauded for his ideas and constantly fresh approach to the tactical side of the game. Without Cruyff, though, Guardiola would not be the man he is, something he openly admits.

Football is losing that purity which Cruyff fought so vehemently to preserve. Money is everything, meaning that results take precedence over the beauty of the game. The need to win is matched only by the need to sell a brand, something Barça battled intensely for many years, donning no sponsor on their shirts until very recently. Even in his adopted home, though, his values have somewhat been diminished, particularly since Laporta’s exit in 2010.

It was unsurprisingly Cruyff who took the opposite stance, though, claiming he’s “never seen a bag of money score a goal” when discussing whether money guarantees success. Even when not on the frontline, be it as a player or coach, he was constantly teaching the world how to improve the game.

Johan Cruyff may have departed, but his legacy will live on. His impact on football is permanent, but he gave so much more to life than that. Whether he is the greatest footballer of all time is, at the very least, up for debate. As a player, manager, philosopher and even politician of sorts, he proved himself to be the most important figure the game has ever seen.

Remembering The Greats: Thierry Henry – A cog in many machines

Thierry Henry is undoubtedly Arsene Wenger’s greatest ever masterpiece. Arsenal have lost their way of late, and Wenger isn’t moving with the times as perhaps he should, but once upon a time he had a team packed with everything desirable for success, and a player who epitomised that better than anyone.

Around the turn of the century, the Gunners were an unstoppable force. They won two Premier League titles after the year 2000, the second of which, in 2004, without losing a league game; combining steely determination and dogged fighting spirit with a beautiful style of play which drew similarities with the finest art to be found in the Louvre. Henry fits in with that metaphor, as a Parisian, and he was the living embodiment of Wenger’s ideas, carrying them to the top with such grace, and at times, ease.

Past generations of football players, before both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi hit top gear, have a rough deal. The records both continue to break on an annual basis look like putting the achievements of the likes of Henry to shame, but not many, if any at all, have come close to the Frenchman in the Premier League. Great players are not at a shortage in this country, but no one made playing at the top level look quite as effortless as he did at his Gunners best, almost walking through defences to score goal after goal, lighting up Highbury week after week.

What made that team, and Henry, so good was watching them develop. It was peak Wenger, whose ideas were so innovative and refreshing, that created such a prolific footballing monster. He didn’t just score goals, netting 175, the most of any foreign player in English top-flight, between 1999 and 2007, but he created too. Mesut Ôzil, Arsenal’s main protagonist these days, looks likely to go on and overtake him this season, but Henry’s assists haul of 20 in 2002/03 remains the record for the most in a single campaign.

The move to North London was the catalyst for his astronomical rise to the top and, especially without the domination of the Ronaldo/Messi axis to contend with, it is a crime he was never given one of world football’s most coveted individual awards.

It is something of a myth, though, that Wenger unearthed a hidden gem when he bought Henry from Juventus in ’99. By then, he had played in the Champions League for both Monaco. where he proved to be one of Ligue 1’s best youngsters after negotiating the fabled Clairefontaine youth academy. Most crucially, a year prior he became a World Champion, and added the European crown two years after that, all before he really began to command the upmost respect in England.

At Juve, alongside his World Cup winning team-mates Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, and in a country where many others in that successful France side thrived, a young Henry floundered. Although he burst onto the scene with key goals at that tournament, and had done pretty well at Monaco, his goalscoring was never strong enough and he was mainly utilised as a winger in Serie A. It was then that Wenger, who worked with him at the Stade Louis II, sensed the opportunity to revive, rather than create, him.

Few players can profess to having such big impacts on the most successful eras of three different teams. To add to his joys with Les Bleus and Arsenal, where he became a considerable presence both on and off the pitch, captaining them after Patrick Vieira’s 2005 exit, he played his part for arguably the greatest club team ever at FC Barcelona.

When he moved to Camp Nou, just two years after Vieira’s departure and 12 months on from Barça’s Champions League final victory over Arsenal in the Stade de France, he was no longer king. Henry had to learn to blend in, not that it wasn’t part of the job alongside Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and Dennis Bergkamp before, but as he even admitted, playing for the Blaugrana is like learning a new sport. Finishing as top scorer in his first season didn’t tell the whole story. In truth, he struggled, with injuries and the negativity around the club in Frank Rijkaard’s final, chaotic season in charge.

Playing through the middle was no longer an option, but he fared better out wide when Pep Guardiola solved the striking equation in his debut, treble winning campaign. Henry thrived alongside Messi and Samuel Eto’o, particularly in the 2-6 Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, when Guardiola’s now trademark philosophy was executed with the most damning expertise.

Henry had grown from a talented Frenchman, to not only one of the best footballers on the planet, but one of the most famous faces too. His impact on MLS when at New York Red Bulls helped the league and American game in general develop. The biggest compliment that can be paid to him is the struggle to pinpoint a highlight in a long and spectacular career.

Remembering The Greats: Paolo Maldini – Like father, like son

The name Maldini looms large in Milan. Along the halls of the San Siro, it is a symbol of what it means to play for the Red and Black, the Rossoneri. The city is split into two teams with very different philosophies. By definition, Internazionale, translated literally as ‘International’, are not afraid to look elsewhere for their stars, while AC Milan have a history of developing legends from within. No one defined such ideas as clearly as Paolo Maldini.

That is not to say Inter do not pay attention to their own youth, nor does it suggest AC, more commonly known as Milan, much to their delight, fail to attract big names from afar. It is, though, quite emblematic that the Nerazzurri’s (Blue and Black) most recent answer to the legendary status of the Maldini name is Javier Zanetti, an Argentine who arrived in 1995 to become a permanent fixture for them across a number of generations. He lasted a remarkable 19 years, five years short of Paolo himself.

Maldini is not just synonymous with the red half of Milan through one generation. Paolo’s father, and later manager with both Italy’s under-21s and senior side, Cesare, won the European Cup with the club at Wembley in 1963. Both were defenders, and when Paolo took to the first team at the age of 16 just over twenty years later, his father’s legacy was both a help and a hindrance. He would be given time to prove himself, not that he needed it, but the pressure would soon be on to deliver.

No bigger compliment can be paid to Paolo than the fact that he not only lived up to, but surpassed his father’s legacy. Cesare played over 300 Serie A games for Milan in 12 years between 1954 and 1966, before leaving and retiring at Torino a year later. Paolo, who never pulled on another club’s shirt despite a plethora of big offers, didn’t retire until he was 40, in 2009, after almost 700 league outings, seven scudetto titles and a remarkable five European Cups.

The symmetry between the pair was made particularly special in 2003. At the scene of his fourth European medal, when Milan beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford, Paolo emulated his father’s feat from 40 years earlier as captain, lifting the famous trophy in England.

His achievements have made it hard to pin him down to one specific era, such is his spectacular longevity. He was not only a key component in arguably the greatest Italian side ever, under Arrigo Sacchi in the 1990s, but also that for former teammate Carlo Ancelotti a decade later.

Alongside Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo not only made up one of the best defences ever to play the game, despite Sacchi’s propensity to attack with high energy and pressure, but he also set a precedent. Milan have become notorious for helping ageing legends continue at the top for a long time, dedicating their Milanello training complex to that end.

In 2007, when Paolo lifted his fifth and final continental title against Liverpool, it was effectively the same spine of the team that beat Juve, and lost to the Reds in spectacular fashion two years earlier. Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf, the only man to lift the trophy with three different clubs, all benefitted from the conditioning to enjoy long and successful careers with the club.

Paolo was never the aggressive type, he never looked like fighting for the cause, in a way that, for example, Carles Puyol at Barcelona would, but there is little doubt he’d have died for Milan. His refreshingly modern style of play, combining brilliant skill on the ball with a natural knack of defending and fantastically athletic physique, afforded much versatility in his game. He took a trial as a right winger, but was equally as effective at centre half or fullback.

To this day he remains quiet, never looking for the limelight his glittering career entitles him to. But his ability to lead by example, stay calm in the face of pressure and perform consistently on the pitch made him Milan’s greatest captain. Despite not featuring in any of the Azzurri’s four World Cup winning sides, and suffering heartache in the Euro 2000 final at the hands of France, a record 126 caps make him a candidate for Italy’s best, too.

His father said it best on a series of documentaries most fittingly named Football’s Greatest: “He is a real Rossonero, his soul belongs to Milan.” As a child he followed Juventus, he had the chance to try out for Inter too, but the love affair between player and club was destined to happen. Testament to the family name, when he retired, it was announced that only Paolo’s sons could don his number three shirt.

AC Milan are a truly legendary club, one for which success is part of it’s DNA. Recently, hard times have hit, without the same steady stream of big names to keep the flame burning. They are missing Paolo Maldini, as they always will, because he is arguably the greatest defender to ever play the game. It remains to be seen if the family tradition will be continued.

Remembering The Greats: Ronaldinho – Entertainment Personified

It took Stamford Bridge a good few minutes to catch its breath. Chelsea were stunned into silence, Jose Mourinho could only watch on. A small pocket of Barcelona fans could be heard roaring with joy at the outrageous act that had just occurred. The 2004/05 Champions League quarter final wasn’t over yet, Ronaldinho had reminded the watching world he was the best player on the planet.

The Catalans travelled to West London for the second leg with a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o at Camp Nou. But an incredibly fast start, typical of that Blues side, saw them take an early 3-0 lead. It was the season that Chelsea really announced themselves on the European stage, with a particularly strong defence. Petr Cech broke the English record for the longest amount of time without conceding a goal that season, but not even he could do anything about the piece of vintage Brazilian magic that was to come.

A bad tempered first game had set the tone for the return. Mourinho, whose bad blood with Barça is well documented nowadays and goes back many years, accused referee Anders Frisk and Frank Rijkaard of conspiring together at half time after a Didier Drogba red card 10 minutes after the break. Death threats resulted in the Swedish official quitting the game for good. Rijkaard, understandably, didn’t take too well to it either.

Barça were desperately looking for a way back into the tie. Despite their nightmare start that evening, they still felt they could go through. Ronaldinho, reigning World Player of the Year, picked the ball up on the edge of the area. What probably struck the most fear into the hosts’ hearts was his lack of motion, but with one swift flick of the outside of his right boot, he curled the ball, with no back lift, past a blindsided Cech. The bewitched look on Ricardo Carvalho’s face on the slow motion replays tells its own story.

Ronaldinho then netted a penalty and looked like leading them through, only for a John Terry header to knock them out late on. That goal, though, a moment that brings shock, awe and joy in equal measure with every viewing, sums him up. The animosity, unfortunate circumstances, and even Barcelona’s defeat, are just secondary story lines, compared to arguably the greatest show of individual brilliance of his career. He has quite a show reel, so take your pick.

You’ll have to go far to find a more naturally talented person to have ever donned a pair of boots. He combined an ability to do things that few could do if they dedicated their lives to trying without a second thought, with the most intoxicating enjoyment for just playing the game he loved. Particularly at the height of his powers, when he inspired Barcelona to back to back La Liga titles and the Champions League in 2006, there was no one more entertaining player to watch than him.

Unfortunately, the lack of longevity and consistency in his performances throughout his career have tainted his reputation. Now 35, and after failing to settle after spells in his native Brazil, despite winning the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Mineiro in 2013, and Mexico, he is a free agent. The rather anticlimactic end to life in Spain in 2008, after his lack of work rate failed to impress the winning obsessed Pep Guardiola, has set the tone for his later years. He moved to AC Milan in the hope of recapturing his best form but couldn’t, not doing so since.

There are more defining moments in Ronaldinho’s reign at the top than most, but his impact at Barça is what he should be most remembered for. His sour finale and rise of successor Lionel Messi mean he has, to some degree, drifted from the very height of Barça folklore. But when he walked through the door, signing from Paris St Germain in 2003, he found a world renowned institution on its knees, proving the catalyst for the most remarkable resurge. FC Barcelona would not be such a fo in the modern era if it wasn’t for him.

Even the achievements of his replacement as talisman may not have happened without him. Messi came into the first team at Barça as a 16-year-old in 2004, looking to learn from the star attraction. Ronaldinho saw the greatness before the majority, but instead of taking a selfish route filled with petty jealousy, he put his arm around and befriended a young, slight, timid youngster, giving him the confidence and belief to grow. Fittingly, he set up the Argentine’s first goal, against Albacete, with a delicate through ball.

That goal against Chelsea is just one example of the unique ability of Ronaldinho. He could do anything with a football, see a move before anyone, play a pass that would even bamboozle his team-mates. He hit world fame with that stunning, some say fluke, goal against England in the 2002 World Cup before winning the trophy and being named Midfielder of the Tournament. If that doesn’t define him, then receiving a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu for an audacious brace in El Clasico against Real Madrid definitely should.

It is sad to see what has become of Ronaldinho in many ways, and it may take a number of years to see just what he did for football during his remarkable career. He captivated creativity, recognised the world over for his ponytail and buck-toothed grin, which showed just how he thought when a ball was at his feet.