Of course, one could start an article on Zinedine Zidane’s 50th birthday with the great moments of his career: the two headed goals in the 1998 World Cup final, the famous volley in the 2002 Champions League final against Leverkusen, the memorable departure in 2006 in the Berlin Olympic Stadium with an ice-cold penalty and hot-headed assault against Marco Materazzi. But to recognize the uniqueness of Zizou, it is enough to accept the ball in midfield, a body deception or his patented roulette. Footballer Zinedine Zidane was lightness, creativity, magic.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated world football for longer and more clearly, scoring more goals and winning more trophies with their clubs. But they don’t come close to the elegance of the French. Zidane danced with the ball, making heavy things look incredibly easy and leading his teams with sheer presence and body language. Big words and the limelight were never his thing, but when he headed France to the 1998 World Cup title in 1998, at the age of 26 he was definitively one of international football’s biggest stars.
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Zidane was not a child prodigy who was predicted to have a world career as a teenager. As a child of Algerian immigrants, he grew up in a suburb of Marseille and spent his days on the neighborhood’s football pitches. There he was discovered at the age of 14 and switched to the youth academy of AS Cannes. After two seasons as a professional, he moved on to Girondins Bordeaux in 1992, where he made his breakthrough at national level. In his fourth season, he reached the Uefa Cup final with the team against FC Bayern and was voted France’s player of the season.
He then made it to the top of the world at Juventus Turin. Twice he made it to the final of the Champions League with the Italians, losing both times. Nonetheless, in 1998, after winning the World Cup, he was named World Player of the Year. In 2001 he switched to Real Madrid for the then record sum of 150 billion lire (about 75 million euros), where he finally fulfilled his dream of winning the European Cup. In 2002 he shot the Spaniards to the title in the Champions League. The long look at the ball in the Glasgow sky, the coordination, the shooting technique, the volley with the left foot in the top left corner past Hans-Jörg Butt. His winning goal was a work of art.
It was the high point of his time in Madrid, and he ended his contract, which ran until 2007, prematurely. At the 2006 World Cup, however, he showed his extra class one last time. He led a French team that was actually well past its prime to the final, in which he naturally played a decisive role. Early on he gave Gianluigi Buffon no chance in Italy’s goal with a Panenka-style penalty that bounced off the underside of the bar behind the line.
But in extra time, Zidane’s opponent Materazzi suddenly collapsed on the ground. Away from the game, the Frenchman had it struck down with a headbutt to the chest. The Italian had previously insulted him violently. The picture of Zidane disappearing past the trophy into the catacombs of the Berlin Olympic Stadium is one of the most iconic photos in World Cup history. But that was Zinedine Zidane: magical and uncontrolled, genius and madness.
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Years later Zidane became coach and won the Champions League three times in a row with Real from 2016 to 2018. That was once again a unique achievement of this unique footballer. His 50th birthday is celebrated in France as a national event. The newspapers are full of memories, photos and interviews.
“I do what I feel when I feel it. I do everything with my heart,” Zidane told the daily sports newspaper “L’Equipe” about his future career plans. Currently he has no job but always one dream: the national team. “My deep longing is there. The French team is the most beautiful thing there is.”