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.

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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.