World Cup Legends #3: Zinedine Zidane

Next up in our series on World Cup legends is the imperious France midfielder, who's famous final act against Italy in 2006 made him football's ultimate flawed hero 

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In Argentina, it is common sense that if you revere the second goal that Maradona scored against England at the 1986 World Cup, then you must revere the Hand of God.

The explosive intricacy, the impish daring, the lethal finish of the second goal, all spring from the same life of tough peripheral poverty that extols trickery and recognises the necessity of gamesmanship. The same can be said of France and Zinedine Zidane. 

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In France’s second game of the 1998 World Cup, Zidane was sent off after raking his boot over the thigh of Saudi player Fuad Anwar.

Three weeks later, after scoring two of the three goals that won France their first World Cup, the face of a Franco-Algerian, a Muslim of Berber ethnic stock, raised in the banlieues of Paris and Marseille, was beamed onto the side of the Arc de Triomphe in the midst of the biggest party in Paris since the liberation.

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A team decried by France’s far right as inauthentically French was now celebrated as proof of the new multicultural France.

Having announced his retirement, the 2006 World Cup was always going to stage Zidane’s last games as a professional footballer. I was lucky enough to see France vs Spain in the round of 16. Zidane had already won the game for France, controlling the midfield and making a goal for Patrick Vieira. Then he scored his own.

Running at full tilt, he received a waist-high spinning ball and without breaking step cushioned it off the top of his thigh. It fell so softly into his path that a tiny touch of his extended toe brought it perfectly under control. How do you top that? A sharp right-angled turn, brilliantly disguised by his impassive eyes and an impossibly late shift of weight, then a pirouette spinning at lightning speed on a thimble, cut short by an immaculate shot that rendered the flailing efforts of defender and goalkeeper almost ludicrous.

By the time of the final, Zidane had already been made the player of the tournament and in the 108th minute of the game against Italy, his header seemed bound for goal. The chance was saved and two minutes later, after an exchange of words, Zidane headbutts Marco Materazzi and walks off the pitch forever. France lost the penalty shoot-out.

David Beckham came home from his red card in the 1998 World Cup to burning effigies and a nationwide hail of abuse. Zidane, meanwhile, was not simply forgiven but venerated – his act variously interpreted as a blow against racism and a statement of the importance of pride over victory.

In England, we immortalise our footballers as ephebic youths and Athenian heroes. Outside Wembley, Bobby Moore stares imperturbably into the middle distance; at Stamford Bridge, Peter Osgood is a picture of serenity. France cast Zidane’s headbutt in bronze 16ft high and put it outside the Pompidou Centre.

We have forgotten, if we ever knew it, that heroes have their flaws, the gods have feet of clay, and they are no less divine for it.

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MORE WORLD CUP: 
World Cup Legend #1: Maradona
World Cup Legend #2: Pelé
17 Reasons England Will Definitely Win The World Cup

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