My favourite sporting moment: When Zidane glided through Brazil in 2006
Emmet Malone looks back on the 2006 quarter-final dominated by the mesmerising Frenchman
France’s Zinedine Zidane is surrounded by Brazil players in the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil at Stadium Frankfurt on July 1st, 2006. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Yeah, yeah, Italy won the thing and Germany hosted it for the first time as a reunited nation but there was only one story at the 2006 World Cup and it was French. For reasons bad then good then ugly, Zinedine Zidane sort of stole the show.
Everyone remembers how the story ends which was not, of course, what anyone expected but there were a few short days where journalists and most everyone else at the tournament started to believe they were getting to see one of sport’s genuinely great stories unfold close up.
Its early chapters, we suddenly realised, had been written the previous autumn when, having seen his side fail to beat Ireland, Israel or Switzerland at home in qualifying, Raymond Domenech went cap in hand to Zidane and a deal was done. He returned, as captain and with a significant say on wider team selection, in September for the visit of the Faroe Islands, with France sitting fourth in their group table with 10 points from six games. They had trips to Dublin and Berne still to come.
Two months later, they qualified as group winners having taken another 10 from their four remaining matches. Zidane scored the opening goal against Cyprus and had a hand in Thierry Henry’s winner at Lansdowne Road. And yet by the time the tournament itself came around his form, and that of the team generally, was so indifferent that almost nothing of consequence was expected.
The three-time World Player of the Year had announced he would retire after France went out and so, after an opening group game draw with the Swiss and having been booked in both matches, it seemed entirely plausible that Zidane had just kicked his last ball in the professional game when Domenech took him off in injury time against South Korea with the two sides level on a goal apiece. The pair did not get on and this cannot have been how he imagined it would all end. He threw his captain’s armband at the coach in disgust as he passed.
David Trezeguet (who would later miss the decisive spot kick in the final’s penalty shootout) came in for the game against Togo which Zidane, on his 34th birthday, watched France win 2-0 from the stand.
“Something stirred within Zidane,” watching that match, Martin O’Neill would observe in a newspaper column a little later, as he previewed the final but nobody knew yet. A good portion of the French media called for the coach to stick with the younger legs that had delivered the win. L’Humanité described the team’s veteran captain as “an obstacle to success” while La Provence had his professional obituary ready to go under the headline: “Adieu L’Artiste”.
He wouldn’t have known about the latter in the lead-up to the team’s second-round game against Spain but when Marca boasted that “We are going to retire Zidane” the departing Real Madrid star made his irritation clear: “I’ll retire when I want to retire, not when Marca tells me to,” he announced.
There were glimpses of his old self as Spain were beaten 3-1 and Zidane still had enough in the tank in injury time to power forward and score the last goal. The win set up an encounter with tournament favourites Brazil and after it anything would seem possible.
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Carlos Alberto Parreira made a couple of changes to his starting line-up, one enforced as Emerson was injured, one not, and the coach altered the tactics with Ronaldinho, then World Player of the Year, nudged forward to partner Ronaldo, while Adriano was dropped and Kaka was deployed behind the front two.
When Zidane pirouetted past three Brazilians in the first minute, however, you suddenly sensed that it might not matter what the defending champions tried. It felt like a Roy Keane against the Netherlands opening moment; different and yet the same and it suggested that this was to be another of the French midfielder’s great days.
As it turned out, almost all of Parreira’s key players performed poorly and the changes seemed to allow the Europeans space precisely where they were best equipped to use it, in central midfield, where Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira sat behind the team’s captain.
The Brazilians did have a 20-minute spell where they were generally the better side but the French then steadily took control of things with Zidane at the heart of their superiority. There was no one kick of the ball as obviously brilliant as, say, his Champions League goal in Glasgow but over the course of this game he started to run things, to propel his own team and subdue opponents in the way you might see someone do in a schoolboy or lower league match.
As the French clearly began to believe that they were the better side, the Brazilians, a genuinely world-class collection of players, began to crumble, making basic errors and looking terrified, whether on or off the ball. None looked more lost than Gilberto Silva or Ze Roberto, the pair who had been handed the task of containing Zidane between them.
Nobody was spared, though. Out on the pitch, before the game there had been smiles and a warm exchange of words between Zidane and his Real Madrid team-mate Ronaldo. As the early pattern of the game shifted a little while later, the pair went for the same ball. Having got there first, Zidane, in a moment of brilliance that seemed almost contemptuous, flicked it up above the Brazilian, turned then headed it past his rival. God, it was thrilling to watch.
As one great player came to dominate the evening and mesmerise the 48,000 or so people lucky enough to be inside the stadium in Frankfurt, the other was reduced to diving at almost every opportunity in the hope of winning a free or penalty that might provide a way for his struggling side to save itself.
The decisive set piece, though, went the other way. As the Brazilian defence switched off and Roberto Carlos lost his man, Zidane’s delivery from the left was turned home at the far post by Thierry Henry. It was his first assist for the Arsenal striker in the 55 international games they had played together.
For the bulk of the half an hour that remained, France reverted to an almost perfectly executed counter-attacking game and there could easily have been another goal or two. Just the one was enough, though, and while the margin might have been slender, “they deserved their victory” Parreira readily acknowledged afterwards. “They were the better side.”
Zidane, he added, was “a monster. He was everywhere and . . . he made the job very difficult for us.”
The brilliance of his performance was hailed by pretty much everyone. Franz Beckenbauer called him “magnificent”, Pele “a magician” while Michel Platini observed that; “technically, I think he is the king of what’s fundamental in the game – control and passing. I don’t think anyone can match him when it comes to controlling or receiving the ball.”
La Provence ran a somewhat different headline. “Monumental,” it now read.
When he scored the penalty that delivered victory over Portugal in the semi-final four days later it seemed almost certain, written in the stars somehow, that Zidane would carry that France team to another world title.
“Nothing is impossible with this genius,” wrote O’Neill, echoing what many of us felt, ahead of the final.
And as things turned out, he wasn’t wrong.
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