be there

The Cult: Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane was among the microscopically small group of footballers who​ treat the sport’s showpiece events – World Cup and Champions League finals – as the most natural stage for who they are.

by Toby Sprigings
15 December 2015, 11:10am

Illustration by Dan Evans

This week The Cult is profiling one of the greatest footballers ever to draw breath. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.

Cult Grade: Be There

Because I'm a writer, notionally, people don't ask me who my heroes are. That's the whole thing about being a writer – you don't ever see people, so these airy knockabout questions are substituted by seeing your cat sat above the fridge and fixing him with a look that says 1. what is it you actually do all day, and 2. don't bother telling me the answer.

But if they did, I'd say a footballer. A footballer?! Aren't you meant to be smart? This is debatable, given a track record of sporadic periods of tediously repetitive gambling addiction, and knowing without even thinking about it – Khloe Scott Kourtney Kylie Kendall Kim Kris – the descending order in which I'd rank the Kardashians in my affections.

Yes, on some crappy résumé that writing professionally means I don't have to fill out, my heroes should probably be the writers who have inspired me. But they're not. Because I'd like to beat those guys, to put it more bluntly than the actual emotion requires. And if you'd like to beat your hero, I would suggest, they're not your hero. That's not how it works. Your hero can do no wrong.

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I don't even think it takes a great deal of mental acrobatics for me to believe the narrative I've constructed around Zinedine Zidane's career. I genuinely do think it happened the way I understand it. I'll get on to that. For now, I'd ask the question: is there a single showpiece final that Zidane took part in that isn't, in your mind's eye, Zidane's final? 'Yes, you idiot,' you might reply – 'the two he lost with Juventus, against Dortmund in '97 and then Real Madrid in '98.' Which, if we are to let reality intrude for a few more seconds, leaves even a player like Zinedine Zidane ultimately feeling more often a loser than a winner.

But back to my fairytale world, starring France vs Brazil in '98, Real Madrid vs Leverkusen in '02, and France vs Italy in '06. Where, each time, my hero was the only one there.

Cult Grade: High

There are three things – naturally, there always seem to be three things – that make me feel about him the way I do. Let's not even waste time on how good he was at football; you know how good he was. Shrink a list of the greatest players of all time to as small a number as you like, and he's still an automatic consideration. He had the most of a talent that possesses a stronger hold on me than any other: the ability to change his mind. Loads of them, from Nani downwards, have got tricks. What they don't have, if the trick goes suddenly awry, as it's wont to do in tight, rapidly-changing areas, is that ability. They just try to persist with it and lose the ball. Zidane would change it into something entirely different, halfway through, as the ball's flight changed, or a defender did something unexpected, a stepover becoming a dummy in a completely new direction with that graceful horse-like physique adjusted in loose, perfect control.

Regarding his image, as someone who feels the likelihood of making it to 35 with a full head of hair to slim at best, I love how he looked. Because it didn't matter, honestly not even a bit; the balding crown was simply part of how my hero looked.

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But it was, is, who he was that made me take to him in a deeper way than any other sportsman. The above is all well and good; the immaculate sensibility of his control, the nonchalantly pinging it from 30 yards, the casual shuffle-heel passes that unlock an entire defence; Nani, on occasion – the occasion being 4-0 up against Aston Villa with 10 minutes to go – could do all that stuff.

But the group of footballers who wait for the sport's showpiece events – who treat them not as pressure-pits where you need to stop being silly and focus on your tactics and just try not to make any mistakes, but as the most natural stage for who they are – is microscopically small. Messi does it. Ronaldo doesn't. Maradona did as much as he could in 1986, shackled by Matthaus, but by then he'd done enough. The last two World Cup finals haven't featured a single player who was prepared to be there like that; you wonder if maybe now the cultish obsession that swamps football has made the pressure intolerable to even the sturdiest minds, and we're bound to just wait for both teams to exhaust themselves and then for one of them to score a late extra-time goal.

But the pressure must have been high in 1998, in his country's first ever World Cup final, on domestic soil. Zidane's final. 2003: the sweetest volley ever struck, like a left-foot haymaker to Leverkusen's resistance in Glasgow. And then, the other one.

The Moment – vs Italy, World Cup Final, 2006

This is, to some degree, simple wish fulfilment that my hero performed. Marco Materazzi had been such a prick for so many years – to Shevchenko particularly but to pretty much every opponent he encountered – that the longing you felt to see someone just absolutely drop him was becoming intolerable. In my sweetest dreams, when after the Champions League final Mourinho supposedly clasped a sobbing Materazzi to his breast, consoling him that Inter would still be the same without him, Zidane would pop up and just drop them both.

But also, I'm sure he knew they were going to lose. Not much is made of what happened a few minutes before his sending-off, when Zidane fluffed what was essentially a free header, directing it straight at Buffon. And I know, because I watch him with a pathetic level of attention, that just after it had been saved, he stood there for a few seconds, gazing at what had just happened. I swear he knew. That was it, the moment. After that, given the option between lining up for a loser's medal or nailing one right into Materazzi and wandering off, as alone then as he'd seemed his entire career, you know he picked the right one. How did your career end? By dropping Materazzi, and creating the indelible image of the World Cup.

So you finished a winner.

Final Words on Member #23

"Nobody knows if Zidane is an angel or a demon. He smiles like Saint Theresa and grimaces like a serial killer." Jean-Louis Murat, 2004.

Words: @tobysprigings / Illustration: @Dan_Draws