Milan ’96: The coming of age of Zinedine Zidane

Before the headers at the World Cup final, the volley at Glasgow, there was Milan in ’96, when Zinedine Zidane first gave the world a peek into his genius.
Zinedine Zidane
Art by Sanil Sani

Mystics teach union with the Divine cannot take place without purgation. The ecstatic is only possible after desolation. Zinedine Zidane and Girondins de Bordeaux were in the middle of just such an emptying in the spring of 1996.

AC Milan were 1-0 up and cruising at home against them in the first leg of the UEFA Cup quarterfinals. A long ball was launched up to Zidane, the French side’s talisman. The Milanese backline, however, was not about to let him receive the ball, and Alessandro Costacurta blasted it into stands. The ball did not come back. It was party time at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, and some ragazzo was playing the fool, hiding the ball. Play finally resumed, and the visitors tried to get their best man on the ball again from the throw in. This time it was Paolo Maldini smashing it clear along with bits and pieces of the French playmaker who stayed down following the challenge, rubbing his leg. It was at this precise moment – lying on the cold, wet San Siro pitch, hearing the laughs and jeers of the milanisti, down a goal to one of the greatest teams of the era – his confidence left him.

Bordeaux had actually started well. Zidane’s first touch of the match was a beautiful turn in midfield to create space for a magnificent inch-perfect pass between Maldini and Franco Baresi for his teammate to fire in the first shot of the tie. At 24, Zizou’s bald patch was already pronounced, more so because of the wet conditions in Milan. Not even the famous Milanese fog could obscure it. He was also instantly recognizable by his distinctive gait; his upright running style resembled a sprinter who has already passed the finish line, trying to regain his balance by leaning backwards.

Despite this promising start, Capello’s Milan quickly recovered and began strangling the game. The French midfield duo of Marcel Desailly and a teenage Patrick Viera dominated the midfield and quickly sought out Roberto Baggio and Dejan Savicevic with pinpoint passes. The Bordeaux backline found it difficult to track the intelligent movement of the pair. As the crowd sang for their heroes in the 29th minute, Savicevic received the ball in the box. He held it up for what seemed an impossibly long time before dropping it back to an onrushing Stefano Eranio to scuff past the keeper.

After Eranio’s goal, Zidane was starved of the ball, unable to affect the game. He tracked Maldini’s runs from deep more in hopes of receiving the ball in transition rather than any sort of defensive responsibility. The half finished and a broken Bordeaux side trudged toward the locker room.

Whatever the French side’s manager, Gernot Rohr, said at halftime did not work. After the break, Zidane, for what feels like the first time in the match, received the ball in space. Given time and space, he attempted to switch play to the other flank, but his pass goes out of play a dozen yards away from the intended recipient. His head was gone. The godfather of French football, Michel Platini, was doing the colour commentary for the French feed. Whenever the heir to his throne got the ball, he would call, “Allez, Zinedine! Allez!” His urging goes unheeded, and Platini calls the name of another player in the 75th minute: Roberto Baggio.

Savicevic buys a foul just outside the box. As the pony-tailed Italian places the ball, the French commentators are so nervous they simply repeat his name: “Baggio, Baggio, Baggio, Baggio…” He curls it over the wall and beyond the wrong-footed keeper. Two-nil to the Rossoneri, and that is how it will finish.

***

How does one pick up a side bereft of confidence? The Navy and Whites were no strangers to sticky situations, having been relegated a few season before after financial difficulties. The club had returned swiftly to the top flight and were performing well in Europe in 1996. Their league form suffered as a result though and they languished just above the relegation places.

The manager, Rohr, was convinced his side could win if his charges believed they could win. So, he got a little creative and, instead of a grueling training session, took them to the beach. The Bordelaise footballers walked along the headland of Cap Ferret, with gusts from the Atlantic swirling around the group in their navy windbreakers. Different members of the coaching staff had joined the walk and encouraged the players individually, reassuring them of their talent. For Zidane, this was crucial because, to paraphrase Charles Bukowski, the best players in the world are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence. The group stopped for a lunch of oysters, and Rohr found a pearl in one of the shells. He showed it to his charges and declared it a good omen. Victory, he declared, was assured. All that was needed was belief.

Any doubts the Girodins still had evaporated on matchday. Hours before kickoff, the Stade du Parc Lescure was full and the fans bellowed their absolute belief in their heroes. Their support took on a mystical quality as the teams took the field to warm up ahead of kickoff. Something magical was a happening. Several Bordeaux players being overwhelmed emotionally at the faith on display. It is powerful enough to have just one person in this world absolutely believe in you; imagine standing in the middle of 32,500 of them. Scoring three goals against one of the greatest football teams of the decade would normally be an impossible task, but this was no ordinary evening. It was to be a night of miracles.

In the tunnel, French television reporters catch Zidane as he walks out. He repeats the standard talking points ahead of a difficult match. He is eager to get on to the pitch and inches away from the microphone. The interview is eager for more insight and edges closer eliminating any gap. It is reminiscent of Maldini’s attentions in the first leg.

The visitors are relaxed, professional as they walk out dressed in their white away kit. Their attitude is seen as arrogance by their hosts, and they champ at the bit for the first whistle. The referee obliges, Milan start the match, and the boys from Bordeaux hare after them from the first second. Every tackle is greeted with a roar from the crowd. The ultras behind the Milan goal begin lighting flares. The stadium is a ablaze with them, and the supporters look more like angry villagers carrying torches, barely able to restrain themselves from assaulting the Milanese invaders. The pitch becomes hazy from the pyrotechnics, and the action is hectic, frenetic. Tackles fly in.

The Italians are not prepared for this sort of intensity. It is a relief when referees stops play for a foul. Capello paces nervously in his technical area in a long, black coat. He sees the onslaught and trusts his side’s ability to weather the storm. After all, he has the one of the best defenses in football with Panucci, Baresi, Costacurta, and Maldini; up front, his side features the directness of George Weah and Baggio’s guile. He’s up two goals from the first leg, and an away goal would effectively finish the tie. And yet here he is on the edge of his technical area trying to reassure his charges.

If there is one player out there that should be able to calm down his teammates, it is the 35-year-old Baresi. However, he steps out from the back and crashes into Zidane. The Frenchman, in one fluid motion, picks up the ball and barges his assailant as he gets up. He somehow manages to convey a willingness to murder him while simultaneously looking disinterested. The Italian thinks about squaring up to him but decides to get back in position as his opponent has already placed the ball down and making his way up for the free kick. The referee, however, calls them both over and orders them to calm down. Milan’s legendary defender holds out his hands in a placating gesture as if to say, “I’m calm, but what about the other guy?” Zidane does not make eye contact or acknowledge either of them in any way.

From the free kick there is a spirited round of play. The ball ends up on the right, and there is a long, ballooning switch to the left flank. There is no one there, and Panucci goes to control it when he sees Lizarazu storming forward out of nowhere. Somehow, the Basque gets to the ball first and is beyond a flailing Panucci. It is the first miracle of the night. It is so far beyond belief that anyone could actually get to and control that pass that Milan are still trying to figure out what just happened. They cannot react quickly enough as the ball is centered for Didier Tholot to bundle home from close range. Electricity surges through the stadium, and it erupts with cheers and more flares and smoke.

Zidane seems to be everywhere and in space every time he gets the ball. Milan are too shocked or too arrogant to close him down. He is running the game. Costacurta tries to snuff out another attack with a bruising tackle, but only succeeds in breaking his own nose. He provides the perfect visual representation of a dazed and bloodied Milan. Capello makes his first move, throwing on Demetrio Albertini to try and regain control of the midfield, but the Rossoneri are starting to lose the plot and are now just lashing out blindly. The referee is lenient, and the match becomes a frenzied bloodlust. In one move, three Bordeaux players are left on the turf before another is brought down and Maldini receives a yellow card. Replays show Marcel Desailly stamping on a downed opponent earlier in the sequence. Zidane runs over to take the ensuing free kick and takes the time to share a word or two with Maldini. The fullback clearly does not appreciate whatever was said.

As players of both sides look to settle scores and crash into their counterparts, Zidane alone is untouched. Desailly, Viera, and Albertini cannot get close to him. Platini, once again doing commentary, keeps “ole”-ing the playmaker as he bamboozles would-be tacklers. His friend and teammate Christophe Dugarry is not so lucky. Costacurta launches into him with a two-footed challenge on his left leg. It is a shocking tackle, but the referee decides a yellow card is the appropriate sanction. It is Milan’s 14th foul of the half. The first 45 minutes end with Weah challenging the keeper for a header and breaking his arm in the process.

The referee’s whistle is a disappointment to those in the ground. The famous AC Milan is on the ropes. Whatever confidence and complacency they came to the match with has disappeared, and they wander over to the tunnel. A fuming Desailly is no no mood to speak to the television reporter that sidles up alongside him. The home side jogs to dressing room, unaware of the bruises and scrapes they have picked up in the scrappy first half.

The second half begins the way it ended: with Zidane running the show. He has moved beyond football and seems to be competing in a game of skill against himself as he leaps and traps wild passes, pulling off impossible flicks and passes. He is no longer in Bordeaux; he is back on the stones of Place Tartane in Marseilles with the boys of his neighborhood trying out skills on the urban pitch. Each touch is better than the last. Until, that is, he attempts to backheel a pass to teammate and embarrassingly knocks it off his standing leg and out for a throw. It is this precise moment that sets him on a course to becoming one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Previously, this sort of mistake and shame would have gotten to him. Not tonight, however. He is no longer a headcase. He is a champion. One little mistake is just that: a little mistake. It cannot keep him from his destiny. And he knows it now.

This confidence is apparent as he lines up free kick near the corner flag in the 63rd minute. He swings it in and then the second miracle of the night happens: the ball deflects off the back of the referee and falls conveniently at the feet of Dugarry. The forward is not astounded by this stroke of good fortune. It was expected. Waited for. He fires it past the keeper. Bordeaux has pulled level on aggregate, and everyone in the stadium knows it is just a temporary parity. It takes just six minutes for the third and decisive goal.

After a flurry of defensive action, Zidane suddenly receives the ball in space and gallops forward with the ball at his feet and his baggy shirt billowing behind him. He tries a through ball, but Costacurta strains every sinew to make a last ditch clearance. Then the third miracle: the ball ricochets back toward the budding superstar who stretches out his right leg to put into the path of Dugarry. The long-haired Frenchman then blasts the ball into the back of the net where it was fated to end up all along. The scorer runs to his friend who created the goal and embraces him as teammates jump around them wildly. They know this is the turning point not just in the quarter final, but in both of their lives. This time next year they both will be facing off against each other in Serie A following big money moves. But tonight they walk back to halfway, arms over each other’s shoulders.

Milan needs just one goal to advance, but the players know a defeat is inevitable. Only Desailly seems to have any fight left in him. He shouts at teammates to get forward on free kicks and waves a menacing finger in the referee’s face whenever he looks down at his watch. The ball goes out for a corner and disappears into the French ultras. It is not coming back. Somewhere up in the stands a young man has hidden it and looks on innocently. The ball boys have are, of course, nowhere to be found.

Finally, the ball sails out back on to the pitch, but it does not matter because there’s the final whistle. No one collapses on the turf in relief or exhaustion. They are on fire here. The players pump their fists, jump up in the air, lift one another in great bear hugs, and run to the diehard supporters behind the goal. They are not interested in swapping shirts with the one of the greatest teams in the world because they are not their shirts to swap. They belong to to the people of Bordeaux. In all the jumping and celebrating Rohr manages to lose the famous pearl of victory. But there is no need for personal trophies of this night. Mementos would only cheapen the memory. A lap of honour takes place, but everyone is so excited it is a sprint with players hopping on one another’s shoulders.  It might seem odd for such wild celebrations over a quarterfinal victory, but it is the only way to properly commemorate this night of perfection. Everyone there that night speaks of the performance as surpassing the limits of experience and knowledge. Miracles were glimpsed.

Zidane is curiously absent from the revelry. It is fitting, however, because, as St. Paul put it, the old has passed away and all things have become new. The Zinedine Zidane, talented but inconsistent, that began the match no longer existed. Instead, a new one emerged that night. A champion, a superstar, a Galactico. A quiet young man from Marseilles was beatified.