Across what would have been Euro 2020, we are running a series on the players who defined each of the European Championships from 1972-2016 – and beyond that, left their imprint on modern football. Next up: Zinedine Zidane’s masterpiece and France’s ascension to the throne in Euro 2000.
Personality is such a vital part of the make-up of great footballers. For the creative forces, this often manifests itself in extravagant expressions of skill, a magnetic charisma, and an undeniable sense of theatre. That combination has provided a natural ‘It’ factor for some of the games’ greatest extroverts. Cristiano Ronaldo currently has it. Johann Cruyff had it. Diego Maradona didn’t just have it, he wrote the book on it.
But football is a game for introverts too, and few of such characters have ever exerted such an influence over the destination of the biggest prizes in the game than Zinedine Zidane. It took some coaxing from him; Zidane was certainly a prodigy, but he became one of football’s greatest late bloomers. As a tall and skinny midfielder from the tough Le Castellane estate in Marseille, the young Zidane also had to develop physically and mentally to succeed.
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His touch, honed on the tight concrete spaces around his childhood home, was never in doubt. “Technically he was superb,” said his team-mate Luis Fernandez from his first club, AS Cannes. “He had sublime skill, a superb touch and all the moves. On a technical level he was much more advanced than the rest of the team.” It helped AS Cannes to qualify for the UEFA Cup in the 1991-92 season, though with that distraction and Zidane’s absence due to military service, they were eventually relegated. Marseille were the best club in France at the time but passed on the chance to sign him as they thought he was too slow. Bordeaux stepped in instead, and it was the making of Zidane.
Over the next four seasons he filled out in physique and self-belief and became the best player in France. In 1995-96 he was pivotal in Bordeaux’s epic run to the UEFA Cup final, which earned him a move to the European champions Juventus. At 22 Zidane had made his debut for the national side against the Czech Republic in August 1994. He was only an emergency call-up to the squad after Youri Djorkaeff pulled out yet came off the bench in Bordeaux to score two brilliant goals and salvage a 2-2 draw.
‘A would-be Platini’
Zinedine Zidane during his first cap for France
Image credit: Getty Images
When Eric Cantona launched himself into the Selhurst Park crowd the following January and picked up an eight-month ban, French manager Aimé Jacquet rebuilt his team around Zidane instead. Yet his first appearance at the European Championship, in England in 1996, was a troubling experience. France reached the semi-finals, but Zidane was poor; Bordeaux’s draining European adventures and a pre-tournament car-crash meant Zidane was not physically or…