Zidane: The artist
Few players made the game more beautiful than Zinedine Zidane. With Juventus hosting Real Madrid in the Champions League, Jon Holmes says the Frenchman's sense of style will never go out of fashion.
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 06/11/13 4:01pm
"When I see the career he had, the way he used to play and enjoy it - it's just like art.
"But then I see Messi and Ronaldo play, and you can't do more than that. Zidane... maybe you think he could have been a top scorer, because he could. He was just so good. That's where I think maybe he could have tried more."
It's not often you hear Zinedine Zidane criticised - and even the above is couched in terms of glowing admiration. Louis Saha was selecting his #One2Eleven line-up on Fantasy FC on Friday and chose his former France team-mate in a midfield trio with Paul Scholes and Patrick Vieira. Saha was a member of the same Les Bleus squad as Zidane for Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, and holds him in the highest regard - but not, it seems, in the very highest.
When pushed by Paul Merson, he actually admitted he preferred to line up alongside his former Manchester United colleague. "It's easier to play with Scholesy," said Saha. "You make a run, he'll give it to you. Maybe Zidane is a bit more difficult to read. He can dribble and do skills when you're not expecting it. Scholesy won't do that."
So if Scholes - always the footballers' footballer - remains the ever-reliable 'sat-nav', it seems Zidane would have to represent a more elaborate form of cartography. Indeed, it's possible to lose yourself in the intricacy, the detail, the sheer beauty of the Frenchman's craft; watching video highlights of his technique and balance conjures similar feelings to those experienced on a trip to one of the world's great galleries.
The 2006 documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait took that idea of the footballer as art form to the next level. Zidane was presented as Real Madrid's principal performer, a star soloist in a talented company of galacticos. It was the ultimate playercam; captured by multiple lenses placed around the Bernabeu for a La Liga clash with Villarreal, all his character traits were in evidence. The viewer sees the swagger and the sweat; a burst of acceleration here, a languid trudge back there. And of course, there are many moments of elegant creativity as Real fight back from a goal down to win 2-1, the highlight being Zidane dribbling to the goal-line before floating over a superb cross for Ronaldo to equalise.
Also, fittingly, the ending demonstrates those shadows of temperament that lurked beneath his serious surface - a late contretemps with Quique Alvarez results in both players getting sent off. Exit stage right, a precursor to his infamous career swansong - that night in Berlin when Marco Materazzi's sly dig at his sister provoked a headbutt to the chest.
That mercurial moment in itself has since been immortalised in art too, provoking controversy as recently as last week. An Algerian sculptor called Abel Abdessemed created a 16 feet high bronze statue called Coup de Tete in 2012 and it was initially erected outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The Qatari Museum Authority then purchased the sculpture and placed it on the Corniche waterfront promenade in Doha, but after religious conservatives criticised the perceived 'idolatry' of the work, it will now be housed inside the Arab Museum of Modern Art. Zidane, now Real's sporting director and an assistant coach, would likely have raised one of his wry smiles when informed of these developments.
The headbutt provided us with an iconic football image, while Zidane's brace of goals against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final at the Stade de France are surely his career's crowning glory. But his masterpiece - that one moment of supreme Zizou genius - must be his goal for Real in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.
European football's season showpiece was nearing the interval at Hampden Park when Roberto Carlos was sent scampering down the left wing by Santiago Solari. The Brazilian reached the ball just ahead of Zoltan Sebescen, but could only punt it skywards. What followed was alchemy; Zidane positioned himself near the edge of the box, beneath what was still just an ordinary, optimistic delivery. With a magical shuffle, he shifted his body shape and created something extraordinary - a rocket of a roundhouse volley, an improvised finish of such accuracy and velocity that goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt barely reacted before the net bulged.
Eleven years on, the goal is still referenced constantly. When the plaudits came Pajtim Kasami's way after Fulham won at Crystal Palace the other week, the Swiss was quick to put his sensational strike in context. "Was it the best goal ever? No!" he said. "Zidane in the Champions League Final against Bayer Leverkusen. That was the best goal ever." That may only be Kasami's view, but taking into account the occasion, the execution (on his weaker foot, no less) and the jaw-dropping impact, that goal is truly a glittering jewel in football history.
However, as much as we still marvel at Zidane's ability, Saha's argument is certainly worth considering when assessing his overall achievements in the game. Are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on a level above Zizou, because of their far superior goal-to-game ratios?
Zidane's return wasn't particularly shabby for an attacking midfielder. In fact, he averaged just under one in three for France, although at club level that diminished to under one in five. Saha suggests that increased 'effort' from Zidane might have enabled him to get closer to the phenomenal prolificity of Messi and Ronaldo, but we have to consider the mitigating factors. He was never blessed with great pace, unlike today's top two; he tended to occupy space much deeper than them, in a central role that was more maestro than virtuoso; and with the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Raul as team-mates, he was happier to provide than to profit individually.
Perhaps Zidane did under-achieve at club level (two Serie A titles with Juve, one with Real and that solitary European Cup) but he was such a special player that his legacy cannot really be measured in silverware or for that matter, in statistics. That was emphasised in July, when a World Soccer panel of broadcasters and journalists from across the globe - including Sky Sports' lead commentator Martin Tyler - voted for their Greatest XIs of all time. Of the midfielders, only Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff were more popular selections than Zidane (Cristiano Ronaldo was eighth, while Messi was in the forwards category), ensuring his place in the magazine's dream team.
As Zidane takes his seat in the Juventus Arena on Tuesday night, cameras will be trained on him once again. Having glided across the turf of so many great stadiums in the past, the three-time FIFA World Player of the Year still exudes an aura of calm and composure off the pitch. Saha's slight critique is understandable but in truth, the numbers can never do justice to a talent like Zidane. The fact he's still the chosen one for so many footballers past and present proves that seeing is believing.
Watch Juventus v Real Madrid live on Sky Sports 4 HD from 7.30pm on Tuesday.