Zinedine Zidane: The Elegant Artist With a Tempestuous Streak

Typing the name ‘Zinedine Zidane’ into YouTube will of course return a plethora of highlight reels showcasing the talents of one of the greatest players ever to grace a football pitch.

However, chances are the top return is likely to be one of two videos: the crispest, sweetest, most beautifully timed volley ever to be struck in a Champions League final, or a moment of utter madness as the Frenchman headbutted an opposition player in the chest in the World Cup final.

Zinedine Zidane, Roy Keane
Zizou skips away from a challenge against Manchester United | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

There could not be a much starker contrast between the two.

These ‘highlights’ from Zidane’s career perfectly encapsulate him as a player – a man with all the grace, elegance and ability a midfielder could wish for, but also an individual equally capable of imploding.

While Zizou will forever be synonymous with La Liga behemoths Real Madrid - having been recruited during the club’s first Galácticos era and later guiding them to three successive Champions League triumphs as manager - the midfielder spent as much of his career in Serie A with Juventus as he did at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Zidane was first spotted by the Old Lady in March 1996 when the France international’s Bordeaux side welcomed Serie A outfit AC Milan to Stade du Parc Lescure for the second leg of their UEFA Cup quarter-final.

Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, no one gave the Ligue 1 side much hope of progressing, however, a 23-year-old Frenchman at the heart of the Ligue 1 side’s midfield produced an individual masterclass, overpowering and outclassing compatriots Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira as Bordeaux triumphed 3-2 on aggregate.

Bayern Munich striker Jurgen Klinsmann (R) is chal
A fresh-faced Zidane during his time in France | JACQUES DEMARTHON/Getty Images

The display caught the attention of one former Juve great in particular, with Michel Platini imploring the Bianconeri’s owner Gianni Agnelli to recruit the youngster.

Perhaps it was because he reminded him so much of himself as a player, but Platini was never shy in expressing his admiration for Zidane, describing him as ‘the king of what’s fundamental in the game’.

Following Platini’s glowing recommendation, Zidane was catapulted into the upper echelons of European football as reigning European champions Juventus snapped him up for just £3m.

Despite having lifted the Champions League trophy just two months prior, Juve were in the midst of a period of transition. Having failed to retain the Scudetto, the club parted ways with their strike force of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli – with the pair joining Premier League sides Middlesbrough and Chelsea, respectively – and in came Alen Boksic and Christian Vieri, with Zizou the man tasked with supplying the new-look front two.

Having only ever played football in the French leagues, the switch to a blossoming Serie A strewn with defensive superstars such as Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta was never going to be easy. However, it wasn’t so much the opposition Zidane struggled to contend with, but more so his own manager.

Marcello Lippi opted to play Zizou at the base of a midfield three, with the Frenchman deployed as a deep-lying playmaker behind Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte. He struggled to adapt to the role and doubts soon began to surface as to whether he could cut it at the top level.

However, an injury to Conte saw Zidane pushed further up the field as part of an orthodox midfield two, and from here on in the Juve faithful were shown exactly the calibre of player they’d purchased.

The Old Lady would go on to be crowned Serie A champions in Zizou’s first season at the club, however, it was his performance in the semi-final of the Champions League which would provide the highlight of the Frenchman’s first year In Turin.

In a repeat of the final from the previous year, Juve hosted Eredivisie champions Ajax with the Italians holding a 2-1 lead from the first leg. Zizou ran riot, notching two assists in a faultless display as the Dutch side were disposed of with ease by the midfield maestro.

There was even time for him to add his own name to the scoresheet late on, cutting through the Ajax defence before time seemed to stand still as he paused for a second before dragging the ball to his left – subsequently sending two Ajax defenders and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar back to Amsterdam – before tapping into an unguarded net.

Zinedine Zidane
Zidane at Juventus | Claudio Villa/Getty Images

After a turbulent first year Zidane had finally settled in Turin, though in truth he owed much of his success to the arrival of a certain Dutchman.

Edgar Davids arrived at Stadio delle Alpi in December 1997 following an unsuccessful spell with AC Milan. With the Netherlands international anchoring the midfield Zizou was afforded the licence to showcase his ability and he duly obliged, developing a knack for timing late runs into the box as well as notching his fair share of long-range wonder strikes.

As the lynchpin of the Juve midfield, Davids regularly had the best seat in the house when it came to watching the great man strut his stuff, and he was under no illusion as to just how privileged he was to share the field with such a genius.

“Simply watching him train inspires me,” the Pitbull claimed. “He is one of the best players in the world. He thinks in one second and does it the next. He is a special player, one who is original and exceptional. 

“He creates space where there is none. Only the very best players can do that. No matter where he gets the ball or how it comes to him, Zidane can get out of trouble. His imagination and his technique are amazing.” 

Juventus Turin's midfielders French Zine
Zizou and Davids made a lethal partnership | GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

With his feet firmly under the table in Turin Zidane’s influence began to grow, and he would truly flourish in his second season at the club playing behind Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi. He would notch 11 goals in all competitions as Juve retained the Scudetto, though Champions League final heartbreak for the second season running was a bitter pill to swallow.

A player of Zizou’s class was never far away from his next piece of silverware, though - despite international and personal accolades including the World Cup, European Championships and the Ballon d’Or (not bad but nothing to boast about really) -  the midfield artist endured an unusually barren spell at club level.

After a trophy-laden first two years in Turin, Zidane would have just an Intertoto Cup to show for his next three years with the Bianconeri as speculation began to grow regarding his future.

The France international insisted he was happy at Juventus, though as a man who’d been crowed a World Cup winner, a European Championship winner and a Ballon d’Or winner, the omission of the Champions League from his CV was mystifying, and it was clearly something he was keen to rectify.

"I feel good here and don't see any reason to leave. I'm just missing the Champions League and we want to win it,” he said of speculation surrounding his future.

However, Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez sensed his moment to strike. Clearly aware of his audience, the Spaniard is rumoured to have discretely slipped a napkin to Zidane in a deft move the Frenchman himself would have been pleased with. On said napkin the words 'do you want to come and play at Madrid?' were scribbled and from that moment on the Juve Zizou love affair was over.

While Zidane would go on to achieve his goal of European success with Los Blancos and would ultimately become a Real legend, his time at Juventus will forever be the greatest period of his career for football romantics.

The glorious Juve kits of the 90s, the Zizou hairline still just about intact, the youngster pirouetting his way past some of the best defenders in the world.

There’s just something about the Old Lady and Zidane that felt right.