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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Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-derbi comments show why Lionel Messi is more popular

Individual rivalries are, naturally, a phenomenon reserved for single-player sports. In Tennis, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are a great example, while Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali defined Boxing in their era.

They are what makes those sports a great watch, keeping them alive as spectacles. Every great needs competition to push them. Football, though, has not tended to rely so heavily on players competing with one another, always looking at the bigger picture of how the teams fare. That was until Cristiano Ronaldo met Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo is arguably the most unique footballer on the planet, in that it can be argued he puts himself above the team more than any other. There are a lot of myths about the Portuguese international, who has never hidden his desire to be the greatest player to ever live. His talent is not only undeniable, but stunningly obvious, and his ego is there to match.

In a world where political correctness is monitored like never before, Ronaldo’s bullish attitude is to be welcomed, for the most part. His personality has driven him on to numerous individual and team awards, records, accolades and general adulation.

Like every other top player around, Ronaldo has been incredibly unlucky. For all of his hard work, intensity and effort with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal, he has never quite been able to escape his nemesis Messi. Yet, as with the plethora of other top rivalries, the pair really keep each other going.

It is no surprise that the duel intensified when Ronaldo joined Real in 2009 because, with Messi ruling the roost at Barcelona, both then played on each side of perhaps the most unique divide in the game. It is a hatred that runs deep and has both football and political connotations.

They each represent their respective philosophies; Messi is the hard-working ‘boy next door’, who wins through fairness and modesty, Ronaldo the flashy king of kings who dwarfs all before him. Both players have been split by a hair over the past seven years or so, but Barcelona have dominated both Real and football in general. Most records are held by one or the other, and the coveted Ballon d’Or has been shared between them since 2007.

The sad truth of all this is each has a band of loyal followers, meaning many cannot appreciate both for what they are. Instead of admiring both in a way they deserve, taking in everything they do, each time one fails it becomes an opportunity for the other’s fans to partake in a round of unfortunate mudslinging.

The is no known issues between the pair, with mutual respect growing in recent years. The idea that Ronaldo is a cold-hearted, arrogant machine is unfair and fabricated to a degree, as is the thought of Messi strictly being a team player. He knows how good he is and wants to be the main man at Camp Nou, something Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and even Luis Enrique found out the hard way.

It isn’t hard to see how the stereotype has developed, though, and Ronaldo certainly didn’t help himself after Real’s third straight La Liga defeat to neighbours Atletico at the weekend.

He has attempted to backtrack since, but his quotes claiming that if his team-mates were of his standard results like that wouldn’t happen, causing even close ally Sergio Ramos to come out firefighting, have shown him to be the bad loser his, sometimes unfair, media persona depicts.

The idea of him being jealous of Messi and his personal and professional relationship with both Neymar and Luis Suarez was intensified by comments made before a Champions League game at Roma, too. It mustn’t go unnoticed what an achievement it is to get that trio playing so perfectly together, given previous failed attempts with others.

Ronaldo has had a different idea of getting to the top to Messi, and has struggled to outdo the Argentine. Instead of making bad headlines with words, Barça’s number 10, who it must be stressed is not perfect, makes good ones on the pitch as often as his Madrid counterpart does. Seeing the result from the Calderon on Saturday, Messi picked Barça off the floor against Sevilla the next day, scoring a stunning free kick to inspire them to a victory from behind.

Football has been blessed by such an intense individual battle, the type it hasn’t seen before and probably won’t ever again. There are so many arguments on both sides as to who is better, but it should be remembered that, above all else, they are to be enjoyed, because neither will last forever.

Their personality differences have helped the narrative, but the frustrating thing for Ronaldo is he has not been able to shake off the stigma of being second best. Saturday evening’s events showed, in part, just why that is.