PICTURE Zinedine Zidane. What’s he doing? Whenever I think of him he’s spinning around, gracefully pirouetting, as though you could put your index finger on the bald crown of his head and spin him like a top. If you watch him back now on clips in slow motion you can see that often the ball hardly moves, he turns and the defenders turn with him, but the ball remains stationary, like a magician who misdirects your attention but the Ace of Spades was in the same place all along.
That wasn’t all he did of course. When I first watched him playing for Juventus in the late 90s he drove, he slalomed through defences alongside the likes of Didier Deschamp and Edgar Davids, feeding Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi. He launched shots, from long distances and improbable angles, arcing like ICBMs into the back of goals the length and breadth of Italy.
But it’s the spinning that sticks in the memory: those endless drag-backs, usually in heavy traffic in front of the penalty area, twisting, turning, creating space, transforming the game. In turn it was Juventus that transformed Zidane. While for many fans Real Madrid era Zidane was the definitive version, that player emerged during those years in Turin.
While he was a star of Ligue 1 at Bordeaux he was, like many French players in that era, regarded with certain scepticism and consequently was turned down by both Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers. In 1995 Rovers’ chairman Jack Walker is said to have asked Kenny Dalglish, “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” no one was saying that in 2001.
During his time at Juventus, Zidane went from being what a certain sort of English pundit might describe as a “show pony” to a genuine star of the global game. A World Cup winner, no less, and not in the sense that Stéphane Guivarc’h is a World Cup winner, but the man who scored the first two goals in one of the most emphatic World Cup Final wins of the modern era. It is doubtful if that triumph would have occurred without Zidane’s time at Juventus. As Zidane himself said:
“I learned the winning mentality at Juventus. Only there did I understand that winning is an obligation, to be part of one of the greatest clubs in the world makes it imperative to get the result. When we lost, it was a drama. Football is simple: when you play at a high level every three days there is another match. That keeps your feet on the ground after a win, and when you lose you have to work even harder.”
While Zidane added a degree of steel to his game at Juventus it came with a dark side: the red mist. At Juventus, Zidane picked up a total of six red cards in all competitions, mostly for retaliation. It is commonplace to attribute this habit to Zidane’s tough upbringing in the deprived and largely Algerian La Castellane suburb of Marseille. Aside from the fact that this analysis is condescending and racist (and it is) it overlooks a far more simple explanation: Zinedine Zidane got kicked, a lot.
Players kicked Zidane to stop him from scoring, they kicked him to try to keep him out of the game, they kicked him, probably, because they were annoyed that they weren’t as good as him. Quite often players kicked him simply because by the time their foot arrived, the ball was not at all where they expected it to be. And this is the thing: Zidane got kicked a lot not despite the fact that he was the best, but because he was the best. I don’t think that you have to be from a particular ethnic or socio-economic background for that to make you angry once in a while.
It was after one such appearance of the red mist that Zidane’s departure from Juventus seemed to be sealed. Having been scythed down by Jochen Keintz in a Champions League group game against Hamburger SV, the Frenchman lifted himself from the ground just enough to land a head-butt on the prone Keintz. He was promptly dismissed, with Davids following only four minutes later. Juventus lost that match 3-1 and ultimately finished bottom of their Champions League group. Following this disappointment, as well as two Champions League Final defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, it seemed that Zidane would need to move on if he wanted to fill, by now, the only gap in his groaning trophy cabinet.
So Zizou moves to Real Madrid, the club built for the Champions League, for a record fee of €77.5 million. At Madrid, he still spins though: in the 2002 Champions League Final, as the ball drops over his shoulder, he pirouettes and volleys one of the greatest goals in the history of the competition.
Zidane wins the Champions League in his first season at Real Madrid, in the meantime he goes into, and then comes out of, international retirement. However, Juventus is never far away: La Senora eliminates Real in the Semi-finals of the Champions League in 2003, with Zidane scoring a late consolation goal, and then in the round of 16 in 2005. And then there was 2006.
Having announced his retirement from football before the start of the tournament, the World Cup Final 2006 was billed to be Zidane’s crowning glory, but in many ways it was about Juventus as much as anything else. As the Calciopoli scandal loomed over Italy’s domestic game no fewer than six of the Italian players to take the field that day played for Juventus, several others had in the past or would do so in the future (Grosso, Pirlo). Meanwhile for France, Lillian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and David Trezeguet were all current Juventus players, while Thierry Henry was, like Zidane, an ex-bianconero.
After his ‘Panenka’ penalty beat Gianluigi Buffon in the first half, it seemed obvious that this was to be Zidane’s night. So obvious, in fact, that he was voted player of the tournament at half time. But then in extra-time the return of the red mist: walking back toward the centre circle with Marco Materazzi, Zidane quickens his pace a little, stops and then pirouettes one final time before slamming that bald crown of his head into Materazzi’s sternum.
Zidane is shown a red card and for a moment appears in complete disbelief as to what has just happened. It looks for all the world like he is no more able to explain what he has done than anyone else.
As he stands motionless on the pitch who should it be who comes to speak to him? Not his teammates who, perhaps understandably, appear more interested in remonstrating with the referee, but the Italian goalkeeper Buffon, the player who joined Juventus barely a month before Zidane departed.
Putting one of those vast, shovel-sized hands on the back of Zidane’s head, he looks like he is comforting a lost child. In the aftermath of the match thousands of column inches were spent in discussion of the words that passed between Zidane and Materazzi, but what was said between Zidane and Buffon must, in its own way, be no less fascinating. In all those years, in all those miles and all those trophies the link back to Juventus seemed inescapable.
As Zidane would later observe:
“When you’re Juve, it’s forever.”