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: 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.