The first World Cup in twelve years without Zinedine Zidane – A true World Cup icon

Zinedine Zidane captured a nation’s imagination twelve years ago as the Frenchman who was born and raised by his Algerian parents in the suburbs of Marseille helped orchestrate his team’s path to world dominance as the French realised a long overdue dream by becoming world champions. Magnifique.

Twelve years on and as South Africa prepares to make history by being the first African country to host footballs centre stage we tend to forget that the greatest footballer of his generation will be absent from a FIFA World Cup for the first time since he made his tournament debut in 1998. He has delivered the ever so wonderful grace of skill and yet the lapse of madness which has made him without a doubt one of the competition’s most symbolic icons.

Zizou, as he is commonly known by his peers was more than a player, he was an artist. Each and every time he walked out onto a pitch he strolled out with a blank canvas where he worked his magic from the very first minute and ended up painting a masterpiece in the 90th with his wonderfully orchestrated skill and technique. His movement on the ball was ever so elegant and crisp as he took the ball with such ease as he caressed it to a team mate or guided it into the back of the net. He was magnificent. A player who hardly broke a sweat as he galloped up and down the field dictating the proceedings and bringing the best out of his team mates. Never had a player with such grace and modesty made the game he loved look so simple, yet beautiful.

Yes there are some wonderfully gifted footballers at this World Cup. The likes of Xavi, Kaka, Pirlo, Sneijder, who have all the attributes of fantastic technical ability and prowess where they can deliver a pin point pass which can win a game in an instant.  Fantastic players, but not quite Zinedine Zidane.

It is amazing to think that it has been twelve years since those wonderful scenes in Paris as Didier Deschamps lifted France’s first ever FIFA World Cup in their home nation under the flood lights of the magnificent Stade de France. A truly momentous night for the people of France who had become accustomed to coming so near, but yet so far. That all changed as Zidane’s first half brace against the Brazilians catapulted him to heights where he would never ever fall back down. His image being projected on the Arc de Triomphe after their victory is as symbolic as his two goals in the final. A young boy who grew up in one of the poorest parts of France from Algerian descent now had his face enlightened over one of the country’s most iconic monuments. Truly amazing.

Yet earlier on in the competition against Saudi Arabia Zidane’s ever so slight lapse of composure nearly ended his fairytale. As France were strolling towards their second win in the group stage over Saudi Arabia, Zizou stamped on their skipper Fuad Amin where he was dismissed immediately. This meant he would miss France’s next two games where a Laurent Blanc golden goal against Paraguay in the last 16 finally extinguished his anxiety as he sat out on the sidelines itching to have the ball back at his feet.   He would have his wish as he returned in the quarter finals over the runners up of the previous tournament Italy. Zidane was back, so accustomed with the ball at his feet as he began bamboozling the Italians with his flair and control. The French had to book a place into the last four via penalties after Luigi Di Biaggio rattled the cross bar to send Les Bleus through to the Semi-Finals where they would meet Croatia and in form Davor Suker.

Right at the start of the second half Suker popped up with a delightful finish past Fabian Barthez which threatened to end France’s dream and exceed all expectation for the minnows. However this was short lived as Lillian Thuram of all people netted twice to send Aime Jacquet’s side through to their first ever World Cup final.

During the competition Zidane was complimented in the middle of the park with the likes of Didier Deschamps, Youri Djoorkaeff, Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembu. France were as efficient as they were dynamic with a wonderful mobile midfield. Deschamps, the captain , anchored the proceedings as Zidane used his imagination as he memorised the ball under his spell. The French squad as a whole in 1998 was packed with a mix of raw talent and experience.   It was a wonderfully assembled squad by manager Aime Jacquet.

As France prepared to face holders Brazil all the emphasis seemed to be on their star Ronaldo as speculation mounted over his starting place due to illness. However Zidane catapulted himself to superstardom with two headers from two corners that gave goalkeeper Taffarel no chance. As he netted his second on the stroke of half time Zizou blew kisses from his France shirt to his adoring supporters as France completed a 3-0 victory. Zidane and France were on top of the world.

In his first FIFA World Cup the Juventus star had captured the imagination of not only his nation but also those of the footballing world as they witnessed a master class from a pure genius who would only get better. He picked up the Ballon D’or and the World player of the year to add to his World Cup winners medal at the end of the year.

France went on to win the European Championship two years later as Zidane sparkled once again with his crafted footwork and sublime talent where he blasted France into the final following a golden goal against Portugal via the penalty spot. His sheer brilliance in Holland and Belgium that summer saw him pick up his second World Player of the Year award.

However his second FIFA World Cup would turn out to be a miserable one for the new galactico at Real Madrid where he had moved to from Juventus a year prior for a world record transfer. Coming off the back of winning the Champions League with Los Blancos, Zidane tweaked his hamstring which effectively ruled him out of France’s opening two games of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea as they aimed to retain their world crown on foreign soil. They were the undoubted favourites to reclaim their gold but following one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history by being beaten by African minnows Senegal in the opening game, Les Bleus crumpled and were subsequently eliminated in the group stage. Zidane returned in the final game against Denmark but he was clearly unfit as they lost 2-0. The scenes from four years ago seemed a distant memory for Zizou and France as they collapsed infront of the world.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and had Zidane been fit for the start of the tournament then maybe things would have turned out differently. It was so evident that without their star man they struggled immensely. His absence was a huge blow and the holders lacked that cutting edge where a piece of magnificent architecture was needed to create and score.

A largely uneventful World Cup for Zidane in terms of success was to be overseen as the French reached their second FIFA World Cup final four years later in Germany where they silenced their critics and made it all the way to the showpiece final in Berlin. Who was the man leading the proceedings? Zidane of-course.

He had announced his international retirement after Euro 2004 where he made a u-turn on his decision due to Les Bleus struggle to qualify for the finals. Coach Raymond Domenech rewarded him with the captain’s armband.

France stuttered at the start of the finals even with the presence of arguably their greatest ever player and now captain. They drew their opening two fixtures to Switzerland and South Korea. It was an uninspiring start from Zidane and the French as they struggled their way through to the last 16 thanks to a 2-0 victory over Togo which Zidane missed due to suspension.

This tournament was to be his last grace on the footballing world, the 18th FIFA World Cup. He announced that he would be retiring from the game for good after the finals at just 33 years of age. It was turning out to be a an uninspiring display from Zizou up until the knock out stages where the real Zinedine Zidane made his mark, took centre stage and grabbed his side by the scruff of the neck as they began to take control of their opponents.

Zidane was back, and back with a bang. Starting with Spain in the last 16 the flashes of pure magic on the ball that we had all craved to see from the greatest player of his generation was beginning to show. His movement and finesse was back. It was as if we had gone back in time to eight years prior where his wonderful ability became evident to the watching world as he became the superstar in Paris all them years ago. He architected the 3-1 victory over Spain with an assist and a goal. A wonderful night for the French as they put in a truly fantastic performance, especially from Zidane. It was a pure joyous occasion to see the great man come the fore with a scintillating show.

With his retirement hinging on France’s success in the knockout rounds we were left in anxiety, craving as much of the great man and his skill as humanly possible as we would never be treated to his excellence again. Favourites Brazil stood in his way in the quarter finals. Like eight years before Zidane tantalised the Brazilians with a man of the match performance where he assisted Thierry Henry’s winner to send them through to the last four. This was without a doubt his best performance of the tournament and possibly one of his greatest ever in a France shirt. He was a joy to behold that night. His elegance on the ball as he painted his canvas was something unbelievably beautiful. His destiny to go out with a bang in this competition never seemed more evident than that night in Frankfurt.

They completed their route to the final following a 1-0 victory over Portugal thanks to Zidane who converted a 33rd minute penalty to exceed the French publics expectations as they defeated the odds and made it to their second World Cup final in eight years. Although Zizou didn’t dictate as much of the play as he did against Brazil he still scored the winning goal to bring France to the forefront of the world game to set up an interesting final with Italy to rekindle their rivalry.

Neutrals will say that Zidane was set for the greatest ever send off as he sought to bring France to world dominance by lifting the World Cup as captain in his last act in a French shirt. The stage was set for the man who gave us the pleasure of once again seeing his magnificent flavour in the previous rounds. In the way of his dream were Italy, and little did he know, Marco Materazzi.

Zizou had already claimed the ‘golden ball’ award prior to the final giving him the reward for being the best player of the tournament. How fantastic for this magician on the ball who could do no wrong. Such a modest professional who had contributed so greatly to the finals. How could he not end the tournament with that beautiful world trophy clasped in his hands?

Once again it was Zidane from the penalty spot who gave his side the lead after a delicately chipped shot that clipped the underside of the crossbar and bounced back down across the line. He had now become only the fourth player in World Cup history to score in two different finals alongside Pele, Paul Breitner and Vava. That goal also tied him with three goals in a final with Pele and Vava once again as well as England’s Sir Geoff Hurst.

Zidane had his blank canvas to paint his final masterpiece and had already brushed a few stokes of genius to his work. Was he going to complete a wonderful piece of art? Domenech’s team were pegged back shortly after the opener thanks to a bullet like header from defender Marco Materazzi.

The French were ever so dominant with their creation of chances but were unable to capitalise. Both sides couldn’t be separated so extra time was in the offing but nobody could predict what would be Zidane’s final act on a football field. Following an altercation with Marco Materazzi in the second period of extra time, the great man who is capable of pretty much anything with a ball at his feet succumbed to a an element of madness and head butted the Italian directly in the chest as retaliation for the offensive slurs he had endured from the defender. Shock waves rippled around the world as the greatest player in the last decade gave into a lapse of composure as he did eight years before for his stamp in the 1998 tournament. 715million people across the globe witnessed referee Horacio Elizondo end Zinedine Zidane’s career as he brandished the red card aloft sending the great man off. It was indeed the end of an era, and an end of the wonderful Zidane. Up until then he was steadily painting his canvas and ended up ripping it to shreds by creating another piece of history this time for all the wrong reasons by becoming only the fourth man to be sent off in a World Cup final. Italy went on to lift the cup as they overcame their hoodoo of penalty shootouts to win their fourth title.

The startling image from the tournament was of Zizou trudging past the gorgeous cup as he made his way off the field of play whilst his coach Domenech stood and applauded his appreciation of what the man had achieved in the sport. His action was inexcusable and so out of character but as he proved eights year prior he had this element of madness that could occur. But even a genius can succumb to an element of madness. His red card scarred the tournament as a whole and he will be unfortunately remembered more for his dismissal instead of his beautiful career.

The then French president Jacques Chirac hailed Zidane as a “man of heart and conviction” upon his arrival back home to France. Nothing will ever dislodge the French peoples love for a man who has given them so much happiness with a football. He helped realise their dreams and that will never be forgotten. His impact in the World Cup of 1998 and 2006 was absolutely tremendous. Despite his red card he wowed us all with his artistic flair and prowess as he had done for all those previous years.

The man was born with a god given talent. A master on the ball who delivered such happiness to millions of people. Words find it hard to express just how much of a disappointment it is that the great Zizou will be more so remembered for that element of madness in Berlin rather than for his achievements and attributes in football. He has made such an impact on the FIFA World Cup, and that is why he is a living breathing legend. Without a doubt one of the true masters of the game. Merci Zinedine for being the player you were.

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