The Life Galactic with Zizou

Written By Salvatore Bono

There was confusion on the field. No one knew what happened, everyone looked around and saw Italy’s Marco Materazzi on the ground grabbing his chest as France’s Zinedine Zidane towered over him.

The scene looked like Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, standing over Sonny Liston after a knockout in New Hampshire.

This wasn’t boxing, it was the 2006 World Cup final and as the confusion between the players, managers and especially the officials set in, one looked up and saw the headbutt seen round the world on the jumbotron.

Playback and replay technology wasn’t nor is allowed in international soccer but this ref couldn’t let Zidane off the hook. It was a straight red. Zidane was sent off in the final and in poetic justice, the match, which would be his last as a player, would see the Frenchman walk past the trophy as he headed to the locker room.

It was the final time many would see Zidane on the soccer field for almost a decade, then Real Madrid came calling.

The Bald and the Beautiful

Born in the South of France to Algerian parents, Zidane grew up in the projects in Marseille where he learned to play soccer in the streets.

In 1989, the Algerian-Frenchman started his professional career with Cannes in Ligue 1. He was regarded as a prodigy thanks to his speed, agility, brute and blunt strength, not to mention his ability to score from anywhere he wanted.

After going through Cannes’ youth system, the young player was sought after in France. In 1992, he left the team that gave him his first shot and went to Bordeaux where he made more noise in France than Daft Punk could in concert.

Following four years in France, Italy’s Juventus came calling and wanted him. It is in Serie A where he became a continental icon. He would become the Serie A player of the year twice and win Ballon d’Or in 1998.

Winning Serie A twice as well as a Supercopa and Copa Italia, Zidane would leave his mark in Italy as the midfielder everyone desired. He used his skills to help France win a World Cup in 1998 when they hosted the tournament.

Zidane was a national hero and treasure to fans.

In 2001, Real Madrid’s Galacticos squad featuring David Beckham, Raul, Figo, came calling. At Madrid he helped them win La Liga and Champions League. Madrid would make his already near perfect game better. It was unfathomable to think of such a feat but it happened.

By the time the 2006 World Cup rolled around in Germany, the player, 34 at the time, said it would be the final time he would ever play no matter what happened in the tournament.

Then, as Les Bleus faced the Azzurri in the final, the headbutt seen around the world happened and the final moment would be remembered forever. A statue was even created by Algerian artist Adel Abdessemad depicting the headbutt. In a career of more than 600 games played and over 120 goals scored, he was remembered for that one act.

There are many different reasons as to why the act happened. Some say that Materazzi, known for being a pain in the ass, said something despicable about Zizou’s mother and sister. Some say he said something about his ethnicity, because he is of Algerian descent. Whatever the case may be, some say Zidane’s actions cost France the Cup.

“The match you played last night was full of talent and professionalism. I know that you are sad and disappointed but what I want to tell you is that the whole country is extremely proud of you. You have honoured the country with your exceptional qualities and your fantastic fighting spirit, which was your strength in difficult times, but also in winning times,” then-French President Jacques Chirac said in a letter to the player.

Zidane may have been done with soccer but soccer wasn’t done with him.

The Second Act

Following retirement, Zidane retreated from the limelight before starting a coaching career. He was hired by Real Madrid to coach their youth team and then in 2013, it was time for him to set foot on the field of the Santiago Bernabeu again.

Then-manager Carlo Ancelotti, who managed the Frenchman briefly at Juventus and always admired his professionalism and playing, asked him to be his assistant when the Italian took over.  Ancelotti and Zidane would work with Ronaldo and the BBC strike force at Real Madrid.

After two seasons, Ancelotti was let go because the team failed to win La Liga, and came in third, even though the Italian won them La Décima, Madrid’s 10th Champions League the year prior, it wasn’t enough for the front office.

Zidane would coach Madrid’s B-Team in the meantime as the club hired Rafa Benitez, who once worked as an assistant manager at the club. It was Benitez’s homecoming. Benitez had previously managed Liverpool, Napoli, Chelsea, and Inter with varying degrees of success.

Benitez didn’t last a full season, and as the New Year came down on Madrid, in early 2016 he was sacked. Instead of scrambling for a big manager, they promoted Zidane.

No one in the world knew if he was ready. After all, major players never make the best managers – Milan icons Seedorf, Inzaghi and Brocci all tried with the Rossoneri and failed. Even Ruud Gullit didn’t last long at Chelsea, Newcastle and even L.A. Galaxy.

It even happens in other sports. Wayne Gretzky, unquestionably the Michael Jordan of hockey, failed as a manager for the Phoenix Coyotes. Magic Johnson, one of the greatest ever to touch a basketball was worse for his beloved L.A. Lakers as a manager than Dwight Howard was as a player for the team.

However, Zidane would quickly prove to be the exception to the rule.

In over a year, he has led Los Blancos to a Champions League victory, a 40 game unbeaten streak – a new Spanish record, and led Cristiano Ronaldo to the year of his life where the player would win Euro 2016 and Ballon d’or as extracurricular trophies outside of Madrid.

Zidane keeps a certain calm on the field – sure he gets fired up but unlike Liverpool’s Klopp or Chelsea’s Conte, he is not animated. He keeps the composure of the man he learned from – Ancelotti.

Looking Ahead

Real Madrid is currently neck and neck in La Liga with Barcelona fighting for the No. 1 spot. They are out of Copa Del Rey and their Champions League hopes are still alive.

However, thanks to injuries and a few players underperforming as well as his tactics of Ronaldo being rotated in and out of the squad to save his energy, Zidane is being tested this season.

He has even said that he will not last long with the club but for what he has already done, he has earned a passport to go anywhere.

At Madrid, it isn’t just about managing a winning team it is dealing with the public eye and pressure of the world around you. It is amplified at that club more than anywhere in the world and he has risen to the occasion showing whatever the future holds, he can handle his head.

A repeat of that 2006 World Cup final moment won’t be on the cards.

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