Zinedine Zidane: Understanding the unknowable

Everyone remembers where they were on 9th of July 2006. I was at home, about a foot from the TV screen, over the moon that extra time meant there was another thirty minutes left of my first World Cup Final. And then, as was so often the case, the voice of John Motson narrated another key moment in my footballing education.

There was initial confusion as Mark Lawrenson thought it was David Trezeguet who had put his head into Matarazzi, but the replays showed us all what really happened. 

“The referee has gone across now and his hand is in his pocket, he’s been told about it. He’s off, it’s red, it’s Zidane,” cried Motson, as much in disbelief as the rest of us.  

I was in a daze for at least a day afterwards. I was only 9 at the time but I understood what this meant. Years of watching my own beloved Nottingham Forest play had taught me to appreciate it when a player of Zidane’s quality was free to watch on the BBC. And now he was gone. Forever. But I was obsessed.

What has fed this piece, however, was the realisation of just how little I actually understood about Zinedine Zidane; and the question of how much of this footballing paradox anyone can really understand.

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I may have been first introduced to this intensely brilliant but complex figure at the end of his career, but those 4 weeks in Germany were the perfect summation of Zidane. The simplicity with which he by-passed players 10 years his junior would cement a legacy as one of the most graceful players of all time. His actions in the final, however, are the sharp reminder that there is another side to him. This enigma is human after all.  

The thing is, though, he had been doing this all the way through his career. The impenetrable genius had always married peerless displays of brilliance with momentary flashes of anger. It makes you feel almost as if you can relate to the man, as if his vision of the game can be obtained by mere mortals such as you or I. The story behind his explosive temper will give you all the more reason to think so. 

Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Born to Algerian parents in Marseille, Zidane’s upbringing was one of a suspension between two cultures. The instillation of a hard work ethic and diligence by his father was essential for the son of immigrants to survive the notorious La Castellane suburb of Marseille. The result  of his youth was translated into his performances, but it also brought out a tension that lay unresolved.

His youth career at AS Cannes was tumultuous to say the least. While catching the eye early on and winning a move to Bordeaux in 1992, he was also punished during his first weeks for punching an opponent who had mocked his ghetto origins.  Then, several years later in 2000, whilst playing for Juventus against Hamburg in the Champions League, he would cause his team to crash out of the group stages after being sent off for headbutting Jochen Kientz.

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But it’s in 1998 that the tale of Zidane moved from intrigue to myth. Which requires a little bit of a history lesson. Apologies in advance. Are you sitting comfortably?

The 1998 World Cup is often seen as the pinnacle of French football. Played on home soil, France watched an exceptional blend of youthful vigour and established experience clinch the nation’s first world title. And yet for all his heroics, scoring a brace in the final, Zidane nearly missed the party altogether. A stamp on Saudi Arabia’s Faud Anwar in the group stages brought a red card and a two game ban, exposing a temper that was still as explosive as before. 

But they won, beating a beleaguered Brazil 3-0 in the final and prompting the be-all and end-all of celebrations across France. The Champs-Élysées was awash with patriotic pride and celebration played out across the narrative of a new dawn for multiculturalism in France. But while the vast majority of the nation united behind the “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, Arab) narrative, a small minority sought to sow discord, and none were more central in this debate than Zidane. 

Spurred on by Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of Front National, questions were raised about the nature of Zidane’s Algerian heritage, with some claiming his father to be Harki – a group of Algerians who sided with the French during the Algerian Civil War and were subsequently viewed as traitors in their homeland. Zidane’s public disavowal of this story was a rare discussion of his private life but is evidence enough of the tensions that dominated it. The now mystical ‘Zizou’ was the face of what the majority hoped French society could be, but it was still not good enough for some. And when your best is not good enough, what else can you do? 

When we know this, when we finally put these pieces of the puzzle together, we can begin to grasp what happened in Paris in 2006. The abuse he was subjected to, the ethnic and racial responsibilities he was expected to carry and the rejection he suffered when his achievements still weren’t enough. This is when it begins to make sense. With this on his shoulders, in his final game ever, a World Cup final no less, the slightest provocation jabbing away at years of microaggressions could have been just enough to send anyone over the edge. 

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But it is his near total silence on this or indeed any form of personal controversy that means that he has become symbolic of a whole host of issues beyond football. Reflecting on his disciplinary record for Esquire in 2015, he stated, 

“If you look at the fourteen red cards I had, twelve of them were a result of provocation. This isn’t a justification, this isn’t an excuse, by my passion, temper and blood made me react. In my life I’ve always tried to soften things with people. I have tried not to anger or provoke. So when I’m provoked it has double the effect. It builds up. Then it explodes.” 

He remains resolutely unknowable and yet his story is one that is reflected by millions the world over. As David Goldblatt states in his excellent chronicle of modern day football, The Age of Football, Zidane’s silence on the controversy of his life has made him an “irresistible tabula rasa on which to project issues of identity, masculinity and secularity.” The aspirational figure he has cut throughout his life, from player to manager, suddenly becomes relatable. A complex and contradictory figure susceptible to the same insecurities and provocations as all of us. 

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But then you watch him play. And you realise you couldn’t be further away from him if you tried. 

Just as the internet has brought us closer to our footballing heroes through Instagram and Twitter, any 5-minute highlights package of Zidane on YouTube will show you just how far off in the distance this man is. One of the most gifted players of his generation, Zidane saw the game in a way that has rarely been levelled since. Where Messi runs with the ball glued to his foot, Zidane would take the ball with such assuredness that, even when it looked like it was gone, you never doubted he wouldn’t get it back. 

When Zidane played for Juventus, Serie A was the best league in the world boasting the pinnacle in defending talent. And yet this tall prematurely balding Frenchman could pick his way through every steely-eyed Italian centre-half as if they weren’t there. His assist for Del Piero in the 1999 4-1 thumping of Dynamo Kiev proved that he had eyes in the back of his head. His soon-to-be trademark pirouette away from Bologna’s Giancarlo Marocchi was majestic. And his second goal in Juve’s 5-0 drubbing of Bari in 1997 was an early draft of something iconic yet to come. 

https://www.youtube.com/embed/ItnPA9SfNN0?start=15  (Bari goal)

The finished article, though. Good grief. That goal against Leverkusen will be synonymous with the great man for generations to come. An uncharacteristically hopeful lob into the box by Robert Carlos loops away from his marker and falls to Zidane who fires a tracer bullet of a shot into the top left corner to send half of Hampden Park wild.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFfomw-Z4uE  (Leverkusen goal) 

And this is before we talk about Euro 2000 when Zidane was at his self-professed peak. France won the tournament, obviously, and while the tournament largely passed me by (I was three at the time), I have since seen just how good he was. Grainy footage played over awful house music shows a man operating on a different level to those even on his team let alone his opponents, pirouetting into space when everyone of the millions of spectators thought he was caged in. 

Perhaps this is who Zidane is. Just as we think we have him pinned down, he slips away from us. Just as we think he’s human when he misses a comical sitter against Spain during the same tournament, he sends an absolute peach of a free-kick into the top corner 5 minutes later to remind us he is anything but. 

https://www.youtube.com/embed/bE4QzntLJRI?start=157  (Spain Euro 2000 goal) 

And just as we thought he couldn’t possibly keep this going at Madrid, having to accommodate for the obscene midfield talent the Galacticos had on offer then, he continued to produce. The Leverkusen goal is of course the ‘shop-front’ when it comes to Zidane at Madrid, but for me his assist against Deportivo La Coruña in 2003 is my standout ‘Zidane moment’. 

Forced into the wide positions by the presence of Beckham, Raul and Figo, Zidane could have become the forgotten man. But he didn’t. On this balmy winter evening in Madrid, about 30 seconds before half-time, a 40-yard pass from the Madrid defence flies in from just out of shot. Zidane duly plucks from the air with such ease that the hapless Depo right back is left on all fours, as if stunned at what he has just seen. He then moves into the space where the defender should have been and slides it across the face of the goal for El Fenomeno to slot home. 

https://www.youtube.com/embed/YuX48y-aPg4?start=359  (Depo goal) 

Zidane is an all-time great. There is no question. His 148 career goals and 112 assists are testament to the longevity and consistency of the man. But this piece isn’t about his numbers nor should his career ever be boiled down to that. He goes beyond facts and figures and moves instead into a pantheon of legends very few ever get to occupy. 

His style of play has influenced at least 20 years of football and counting. The likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Thiago and, most interestingly, Paul Pogba can all consider themselves as part of the school of Zidane. But to the rest of the world he remains that elusive figure we are desperate to see in ourselves but daren’t consider it for too long. He is an imperfect genius whose ancestry is a loose thread we hold onto in order to get to grips with the man. His silence keeps us at arms length and focuses our attention on his football. Then we forget about the rest.

Ben Miles

Ben is a Nottingham Forest fan finding consolation recounting the stories of those far more successful. He works as a content writer for sports betting company and also freelances for a few music publications. He can be found on twitter @benrmiles