“Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.” With those words, Zinedine Yazid Zidane, French footballer extraordinaire, attempted to explain the mix of identities that have consumed him throughout his life. When you look at the career of one of the finest midfielders ever to play the game, it was this internal conflict that spurred him to be so successful. It also goes some way to explaining the more controversial moments that have played out in the full glare of the world’s media.
Zizou, at the height of his powers, played like no one else. His balletic movement and control of the ball had opposing players mesmerised and pundits drooling. His ability to manipulate and look after the ball meant sometimes it looked like he was about to fall over, only to take another touch to bamboozle his unfortunate opponent and nonchalantly stroke a pass to a teammate.
This delicate close control was honed on a makeshift pitch in the La Castellane estate on the north-western edge of Marseille. This was where Zidane’s family had moved after first immigrating to Paris to escape the Algerian War of Independence. The youngest of five children, this quiet boy grew up in a neighbourhood considered one of the most notorious in the city without access to much else apart from the football matches that took place there. His natural skill was soon noticed and by the age of 14 he moved to Cannes after being spotted by a scout at a French Football Federation training centre.
The polar opposites of Zidane’s character – the calm, confident master and the temperamental demon lashing out at opponents – were already in evidence at his new club. There are reports of the young Zidane attacking players and even spectators who insulted his race and family. But it is not as simple to say that Zidane has had to deal with racists and xenophobes who attacked his upbringing, his religion and his race.
Later in life, Zidane would have to defend himself from Algerians and French alike calling his father a ‘harki’. One of the most serious of insults in Algerian society, originally a harki was someone who had fought on the side of the French in the World Wars – and during the battle for independence from 1954-62. As Zidane was from the Kabyle community and not an Algerian Arab, this type of attack struck hard. Is this why Zidane seemingly felt suspended between cultures? Why he kept himself to himself only to lash out at perceived threats?
At Cannes, Zidane the player was already showing glimpses of the brilliance the world would acknowledge years later. After moving first to Bordeaux, he made the step up with a transfer to Italian giants Juventus. The Turin club had just won the Champions League and were already full of international stars, but the Frenchman immediately made an impact leading the Old Lady to the Scudetto. The Italians were unable to repeat their European triumph, losing out to Borussia Dortmund in the final, but another league title made its way to Turin the next season. Juventus again lost in the Champions League final – this time to Real Madrid – but Zidane’s contribution and skill won him the coveted FIFA World Player of the Year as well as the Ballon d’Or.
By this time Zidane had also showed his incredible talent on the international stage. He had made his debut in 1994 but the World Cup in France four years later was his real introduction to international stardom. Two goals in the final against Brazil gave France their only World Cup triumph but even this campaign had witnessed the dark side of Zidane – a sending off for stamping, once again, in a group match against Saudi Arabia. But all that was forgotten by the French public who celebrated their national hero. Zidane’s image was famously projected onto the Arc de Triomphe alongside the words ‘Merci Zizou’.
Had the small Muslim boy from the rough Marseille estate now made it in his home country? Had this black-blanc-beur version of France showed that its racial problems were in the past and the football side represented the success of a new society? Amid the celebrations, there were many who felt that the World Cup triumph had only papered over these problems.
The political far right openly questioned the ‘French-ness’ of the side and, while congratulating the victory, painted Zidane almost as a traitor to his Algerian roots for succeeding as a French international. Once again conflict was at the heart of even his greatest triumph. A friendly in 2001 devised to bring together France and Algeria failed spectacularly as the match was abandoned after pitch invasions and fighting. The anger and frustration felt by Algerians born in France descended into violence. Zidane’s feeling of not belonging was illustrated by the younger generation. But now they were attacking him as well.
By this time Zidane had made his move to Real Madrid to become part of their extravagant galactico era. A then world record fee of €77.5 million had been paid and he instantly showed why he had been added to a side that already boasted Raúl, Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo.
Although Real’s indifferent league form meant they only finished third there was another Champions League triumph as Zidane scored one of the finest European goals of all time to help beat Bayer Leverkusen. After Roberto Carlos had lobbed the ball up to Zidane on the edge of the area, he swivelled his body to connect with a masterful left foot volley – the ball rocketing into the top left-hand corner of the goal. The intense concentration etched on Zidane’s face as he waits for the ball to drop exemplifies how single-minded he was. The execution of the volley shows that he could do things in a way that no other player could.
Real would actually only win one league title in the five years Zidane spent at the club – and the victory against Leverkusen was their only taste of Champions League glory in the same period. But Zidane’s position in the middle of a team of footballing stars was cemented with regular showings of his technical elegance.
By the time Zidane retired from club football he had won three league titles, a Champions League winners medal – as well as a Ballon d’Or – and had been named FIFA World Player of the Year on three separate occasions. In that same period he had also won the World Cup and the European Championship with France. But it is what happened in his final match that causes fans to question what made Zidane the player he was – and the person he is.
France had made hard work of a relatively easy group before defeating Spain, Brazil and Portugal to reach the 2006 World Cup final where they were to face Italy. Zidane gave France a dream start by converting a penalty in the seventh minute before Marco Materazzi levelled the score 12 minutes later. These two would be at the centre of one of football’s most shocking moments by the end of the match.
In the second period of extra-time, Materazzi was seen to tug at Zidane’s shirt away from the play. After a few words were exchanged, the French midfielder suddenly stopped, turned and head-butted the chest of Materazzi who dramatically fell to the floor. It had been initially unclear what had happened but the result was a red card for Zidane who exited the pitch for the last time as a player without even acknowledging the World Cup trophy as he disappeared down the tunnel.
Years later it was revealed that Materazzi had made a disparaging comment about Zidane’s sister and that had caused arguably the greatest French player of all time to end a career on such a controversial note. Even with this clarification, there were many who didn’t understand how a professional finishing a trophy laden career with a World Cup final could snap like he had. But this 14th red card of Zidane’s career had come about like the majority of the others – provocation met with violence.
In a way it was the perfect end to Zidane’s playing days. The pressure he had felt to be a representation of France was released in one glorious send-off. The celebrated unification of France’s peoples had not happened as was reported and Zidane’s internal conflict played out the frustration of many watching at home. The reaction of the French media supports this notion. Before the match, Zidane was a great symbol of France but after the head-butt, he was more frequently described mentioning his Algerian ancestry – as if that explained what had happened in the final.
Since retiring as a player Zidane has taken Real Madrid to even greater heights as a coach. He has spoken of feeling more at home in Spain, with its Mediterranean way of life, away from the splintered French society that embraced him as a hero while simultaneously highlighting his otherness.
Zinedine Zidane was one of the greatest players of all time, combining unbelievable skill with barely suppressed emotion that made it difficult for some to hold him up as a representation of a nation. It seems that with the huge amount of success he has had in his career Zidane was a symbol of France when he felt more like a Kabyle from La Castellane.