Year Zero: The making of Zinedine Zidane (Juventus, 1996/97)
A shift in Juventus’s shape helped to turn his fortunes, though it came about more through circumstance than any great managerial intuition. Conte ruptured his knee ligaments whilst on international duty for Italy against Georgia in October, prompting Lippi to rearrange his team into a 4-4-2.
By this point, Zidane no longer even appeared to have a secure grip on his place in the starting XI. He was dropped for a Champions League game away to Rapid Vienna, before being restored for the next match, at home to Inter in Serie A.
Zidane wound up creeping forward from midfield into a not-quite No.10 role. From here, behind the attack, he excelled
Whether by design or simply unfamiliarity with the new scheme, Zidane wound up creeping forward from midfield into a not-quite-No.10 role. From here, behind the attack, he excelled – tormenting Inter’s defenders with his direct runs and fancy footwork. After Vladimir Jugovic gave Juventus the lead, Zidane sealed a 2-0 win with a stunning left-footed drive into the top corner from the edge of the D.
Goal at six minutes in
That victory became a turning point. By January, the same Italian journalists who had slated Zidane were eating out of his hand. Gazzetta dello Sport even reported that his neighbours were enjoying living next door to him better than they had the previous tenant, Gianluca Vialli, since he was less prone to kicking up a racket.
It was a different story inside Juventus’s Stadio delle Alpi, of course, where Zidane was increasingly adept at whipping fans up into a frenzy. On April 23, he led Juventus to a 4-1 rout of Ajax in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final.
If Zidane had a signature performance of 1996/97, then this was it - an astonishing virtuoso display in which he set up three goals and then scored the fourth, drawing Ronald de Boer into a collision with his own goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, before passing the ball into the open goal.
No longer could Zidane be mistaken for some callow youth. This was one of the very best players on the planet.
It is an enduring regret for Zidane that he was unable to follow that display up with something similar against Borussia Dortmund a month later. Juventus lost 3-1 to the Bundesliga club in what became the first of two consecutive defeats in Champions League finals.
Even so, Zidane could console himself with the knowledge that he had lifted the Scudetto, the UEFA SuperCup and the Intercontinental Cup during his first season in Turin. He himself would later describe this season as a turning point in his career.
After I arrived in Turin, the desire to win things took over and never left me
“Lippi was like a light switch for me,” Zidane recalled. “He switched me on and I understood what it meant to work for something that mattered. Before I arrived in Italy, football was a job, sure, but most of all it was about enjoying myself. After I arrived in Turin, the desire to win things took over and never left me.”
That is the same Marcello Lippi, of course, who later ensured that Zidane’s playing career ended on a defeat, steering Italy past France in the 2006 World Cup Final. You might call it a further validation of the warning Deschamps had issued him 10 years before: these Juventus coaches will make you better, but don’t expect them to spare you some pain.
Next week, Year Zero: Fernando Torres (Atletico Madrid, 2002/03).