When Zinedine Zidane’s image was beamed onto Paris’s Arc de Triomphe on July 12 1998, a gathered crowd roared and passing cars honked their horns in approval. It was the sort of symbolically loaded moment that only a tiny handful of sportspeople – or people of any vocation – will ever inspire.
Rightly or wrongly, the French team of that World Cup – culturally diverse, emphatically multiracial – had been held up as a symbol of integration at a time when debate was being fiercely contested across the country. That the French-Algerian Zidane proved the tournament’s decisive player, his brace settling the final, was of huge importance.
That Zidane also happened to be the most sublimely gifted footballer of his generation almost seemed besides the point. And yet it was exactly the point: if ever there was an argument for immigration, assimilation and the joy to be had from embracing other cultures, he was it. The word ‘icon’ is overused in sport, but in this instance it doesn’t do its subject justice.
Life of luxury
None of this is to mention to mesmerising brilliance with which Zidane did his job. His mere presence on the pitch had its own oddly magnetic power: he would outrun players without appearing to break into a sprint, outmuscle them with the laziest shrug of a shoulder, and his first touch was a thing of unfailing beauty.
That he barely uttered a word the whole time, his temperament permanently unflappable until the moment it wasn’t – at which point sudden and purposeful violence could be expected – only added to the aura.
There's a common conception in football that the most creative talents also tend to be the least efficient; that style comes at the expense of steel. It’s what constitutes the idea of the luxury player. Zidane was the most luxurious player possible and yet combined it with towering levels of competitive resolve: a heady cocktail of technique, grace, competitiveness and the uncanny ability to pick his moments with aplomb.
For a player whose basic function was to facilitate and create, and who was far from a prolific scorer, he was remarkably decisive – as evidenced by goals in two separate World Cup finals and an astonishing winner in a Champions League final for Real Madrid in 2002.
But as productive as he may have been, the sense was always that you were watching an artist at work.
Most sportspeople gear their game around what is most likely to bring them success, sacrificing aesthetics and extravagance at the altar of shiny medals. For Zidane, such a compromise was heresy: success was simply the inevitable result of his on-pitch beauty.
Decisive goals in World Cup and Champions League finals seem the only ports of call here, but to many purists, his finest moment came in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup.
Recalled from two years of international retirement, the tournament was his last hurrah before hanging up his boots altogether, and many in France doubted the wisdom of reinstating a 34-year-old stroller in the twilight of his career.
Against Brazil, though, Zidane put in one of the all-time great performances, a divine exhibition of dribbling and ball-playing from central midfield – equal parts no-nonsense maturity and youthful exuberance – to roll back the years, secure himself the player of the tournament award and guide his country towards the final.
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