May 29, 2002
In the Crosshairs
ESPN The Magazine
A | B-M | N-X | Z
Born June 23, 1972, in Marseille
Size 1.85 meters, 78 kilograms (that's 6'1", 172 pounds to us Yanks)
Key stat Two-time World Player of the Year (1998, 2000)
|Viva la France!|
The greatest player in the world ... in the world's biggest game. Zinedine Zidane (zi-DON) is an artist who combines creativity, dynamic skills and an unmatched will to win. But his true greatness lies in an innate ability to elevate his play in the most crucial moments. In 1998, he literally rose above the crowd to notch two goals on headers as France defeated Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final. For encores, he carried France to the 2000 European crown and his club team, Real Madrid, to the 2002 Champions League title. No player has ever owned the Beautiful Game's biggest stages the way Zidane has -- not even Pelé. And if Zidane leads France to a second straight World Cup crown, he'll no longer be just the greatest of his generation. He'll be the greatest footballer the world has ever known.
Two years ago, FIFA named Real Madrid the "Team of the Century." But that was the 20th century. So in 2001, to guarantee the trophies would keep rolling in, Real shelled out $66M to Juventus of Italy for Zidane. This season, though, Real finished third in Spain's La Liga. Cue the second-guessers. But on May 15, in the sort of game most players wait a lifetime to play, Zidane scored a goal most players wait a lifetime to see. Just before halftime of the European Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen, Real Madrid left back Roberto Carlos floated a ball from the left
flank toward the top of the penalty box. As the cross sailed toward him, Zidane swung his left leg four feet in the air -- he's rightfooted, by the way -- and rocketed a fierce, bending shot into the upper left corner of the net. Real Madrid won, 2-1 -- and suddenly $66M was looking like a bargain.
Four years ago, Zidane became the face of a Christian Dior aftershave with the slogan "The Symbol of the Modern Man." A reach? Not to much of the world. Zidane is the perfect modern footballer. His size (6'1", 172 pounds) and pure athletic ability let him command midfield play. His left foot is, in effect, a second right one. His field vision is unrivaled. His strength and vertical leap make him the best header in soccer. He is at once graceful and rugged, instinctive and cerebral. In January, Magic Johnson attended his first-ever soccer game and watched in awe as Zidane scored a goal in a 3-1 Real Madrid win at home against Deportivo La Coruña. "One of the most inspiring nights of my life," said Magic. "Zidane is a phenomenon, as good as me and Michael Jordan put together."
No "I" in Team
He's not a rock-star persona like England's David Beckham. And he's not the heartthrob Portugal's Luis Figo is. Naturally shy, Zidane's neither a media magnet nor a spoiled superstar. Though he draws countless comparisons to them on the pitch, (that's field to us) he is the polar opposite of the outgoing Pelé and the flamboyant Maradona. Last year, Zizou wound up in a hotel room next to Andre Agassi, but was too shy to knock on the door and introduce himself. Accepting FIFA's World Player of the Year awards in 1998 and 2000, Zidane was both humble and timid, saying he found it strange that individuals are honored in a team game. Zidane carries himself more like the fifth child in a (once) poor family than like the world's richest soccer player.
In some circles, they'd burn you at the stake just for suggesting that anyone might be better than Pelé. In truth, comparing Pelé to Zidane is as unfair as comparing Bob Cousy to Jason Kidd. The pace and rough nature of the modern game doesn't allow for one player to dominate the way Pelé did, though Zidane comes close. But if greatness is measured in titles, Zidane is untouchable. He's hoisted League Cups in France and Italy, two Serie A titles with Juventus and, in May, the elusive European Champions League crown. He was voted European Player of the Year in 1998 and widely considered the player of the tournament at the European Championships in 2000. "When we don't know what to do," says French defender Bixente Lizarazu, "we just give it to Zizou, and he works something out."
Zidane is the rare superstar who doesn't mind getting his boots dirty. In fact, he loves diving into tough spots to mix it up. The downside is that his rough, aggressive play costs him the occasional red card, as it did in France's first-round match against Saudi Arabia in the 1998 World Cup. The upside is that it sends a message that no one on the pitch can hide from him. Before the 1998 Cup, Zidane wasn't known as a primary target for corner kicks. But as Brazil found out twice on Zidane goals off corners in its 3-0 loss, Zizou will sacrifice his body to score. "I knew that Brazil has amnesia when the ball is in the air," Zidane said afterward. "I thought, why not try getting in there? Good decision, I think."
This article appears in the June 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.