Wednesday, May 10, 2006

THANKYOU ‘ZIZOU’

Why Zinedine Zidane is the greatest of the modern day greats

ALL good things must come to an end, but when it is a great thing, it is just that much harder to stomach. And so it is with great sadness we learn that one of the all time greats, Frenchmen Zinedine Zidane, affectionately known the world over as ‘Zizou’, has graced the Santiago Bernabeu - home of Real Madrid - for the final time.

It happened on the weekend, in the penultimate round of La Liga, when the great man played his final home game, a 3-3 draw to Champions League semi finalists Villarreal, a game he illuminated with a goal, before departing with the quiet, almost unassuming manner that has characterised his career, before swapping shirts with Juan Roman Riqueleme, almost as if passing on the baton and another worthy player.

Soon he will grace the fields of the World’s showpiece, the World Cup in Germany, for one last dance, bidding farewell to the game he has adorned with his amazing blend of technique and humbleness.

A class act, both on and off the field.

It is little surprise that in Spain he is thought of as the fifth great, up there, in no particular order, with Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona.

By virtue of globalisation and the subsequent good fortune of being able to see him on an almost weekly basis, both domestically in the Serie A and then La Liga and across Europe in the Champions League, he is widely acknowledged as the best, at least since Maradona.

The bloke who replaced him at Juventus in 2001, Czech Pavel Nedved, himself a modern star, simply describes Zidane as ‘Number One’, a sentiment echoed around the world.

Three times a winner of the FIFA world player of the year, once the Ballon d’Or for European footballer of the year, perhaps Zizou’s biggest accolade was topping the votes in the 2004 UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll to find the greatest European footballer of the past 50 years, beating such luminaries as Franz Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Di Steffano and Eusebio.

What has stood out so much about him has been an amazing ability to control games on his own. At their peak, when Zidane first arrived at Real in season 2001/2002 and took them to the Champions league success that season and the La Liga title the following season, almost every goal Madrid scored relied in some part on Zidane’s influence.

Whether it was a telling final ball, a sharp turn in central midfield, a slalom-like glide past a bamboozled opponent or a simple pass and move, he was the one pulling the strings, dictating the tempo his team played at with his amazing ability to keep the ball. It is clichéd, but watching Zidane was the closest thing to watching a ball on a string.

Pass it to him and you were guaranteed the move wouldn’t break down. In fact, quite the opposite happened. More times than not it was Zidane playing the role of instigator, prompting Madrid or his beloved Les Bleus - or Juventus for the five seasons before Madrid - forward with his intelligent maneuvering of the ball.

He was not the type of player to decide a game through one moment of individual brilliance - although he had the ability to rise to the big occasion, as we saw in the Champions League final of 2002 when he produced an outrageous left footed volley from the edge of the box to beat Bayern Leverkusen - he was the type to run the game through his sustained brilliance, an artist surveying his canvass and filling it with exquisite touches, strokes and colourful offerings.

But he did so quietly, never making a song and dance, always just getting on with the job and letting others make the noise.

In writing about Zizou it is too easy to slip into past tense. Watching Zidane these days is much harder to stomach, like watching a once great boxer without his sharp hands and knock-out hook.

But at the height of his powers he was a sight to behold. At France ’98 and again at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium he proved, like all the greats before him, that he could produce it at the highest level, when it really counts.

In ’98 he was part of a French team that lacked a real goal-getter, but by controlling games with a tight defence and defensive midfielders like Didier Deschamp and Emmanuel Petit, Zizou was allowed to flourish going forward, providing enough creative spark to take his nation to the final, where he produced two headed goals from corners, the complete player.

Again in Holland and Belgium it was Zidane controlling games as France confirmed their home victory two years earlier was no fluke. Not surprisingly, it was Zidane running the show, and he was appropriately named player of the tournament.

No surprise that when he was injured on the eve of Japan/Korea 2002, Les Bleus hopes and goal creating threat went with him, and by the time he returned for the third game, France’s fate had been sealed, out without scoring a goal.

By the time of the next major championships, Portugal 2004, France had paid the price for not re-invigorating its team, and the ‘old guard’ were eliminated in the first knock-out phase by eventual winners Greece, forcing Zizou and a number of his teammates to retire.

When France were struggling to qualify for the upcoming World Cup, it was Zidane who lead the likes of Claude Makelele and Lillian Thuram out of retirement, ensuring Les Bleus topped their group.

We can only hope that the maestro – once dubbed Harry Potter the wizard – can rekindle some of his lost magic in Germany, but the odds are against him having a major influence.

There is little doubt that as his legs have slowed down, the modern game has quickened up. These days it is the twinkle toes and greater goal-scoring threat of Ronaldinho that have taken over, much as the quick feet of Maradona ruled the world in the late 1980s. Both these guys are a little different from Zidane in that they influence the play in the final third of the pitch, while Zizou did his stuff a little deeper.

Often you would see him receive the first pass out from defence, his strength able to keep play going before he was back on the ball a couple of touches later further up the pitch.

There is little doubt that Ronaldinho is one his way – some would argue already there - to becoming the sixth great, particularly if he can add a couple of Champions League trophies and significantly influence the winning of a World Cup or two (he was only a youngster four years ago, albeit good enough to knock-out England in the quarter finals).

For now though, we can only marvel at the contribution made by one of the true gentlemen of world football and hope that in his final fling in Germany we are talking about him in present tense.

What were your impressions of Zidane? Was he the greatest you’ve seen? Post a comment.

1 Comments:

Blogger Cooky said...

I saw Zidane playing during his last year at Juve, and it was mesmerising. In a team that had talent to burn, he was heads-and-shoulders above everyone else.

He seemed to have an extra second on the ball everytime he received it, & wasn't tackled for the entire match.

I saw Ronaldinho this year when he tore Madrid apart, and whilst it was a great performance, he is not yet the package of Zidane in his pomp - and will do well to scale to those heights...

Fri. May 26, 08:35:00 am AEST  

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