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World Cup Icons: Zinedine Zidane

Regarded as one of the best midfielders of all time, Zinedine Zidane's World Cup journey for France will forever go down in tournament folklore.

1998 World Cup

Signing for Italian giants Juventus in 1996, Zinedine Zidane would win back-to-back league titles in his first two seasons with the Old Lady, falling just short of Champions League glory in both of these campaigns as runners-up. On the top of his game at one of Europe's biggest clubs, Zidane was revered as one of the best players in the world ahead of the 1998 World Cup.

Representing host country France, the stage was set for Zizou to shine for Les Bleus following a footballing barren period for the nation who had failed to qualify for the previous two Finals.

Although Zidane was a bonafide world star and France were World Cup hosts, the midfielder was certainly not recognised as the undisputed world’s best nor his nation as tournament favourites.

The Frenchman had finished third in the 1997 Ballon d’Or standings, with Brazil’s striking sensation Ronaldo Nazario the landslide winner of the gong.

Indeed there was little debate heading into the 1998 World Cup regarding who the world’s best player and team were. Holders Brazil, inspired by Il Fenomeno Ronaldo in attack, appeared unstoppable for France and Zidane.

The group stages of the tournament were certainly eventful for the Marseille-born Zidane, contributing with an assist in each of the opening two matches against South Africa and Saudi Arabia before becoming the first French player to be sent off in a World Cup Finals in the latter match for a stamp on Fuad Anwar.

Sitting out France’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay in the Round of 16 through suspension, Zidane returned to the side to help his country edge past Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals, notching the first spot kick in the 4-3 shootout win.

Les Bleus proceeded to beat Croatia 2-1 in the semi-finals courtesy of a double from defender Lilian Thuram, setting up a showdown with the much-feared Brazil and Ronaldo in the final in Paris.

Despite excelling in midfield, Zidane would enter the final having gone the whole tournament without getting on the scoresheet. This was to change during the course of a history-making 90 minutes at the Stade de France, however.

With the footballing world rocked by the news Ronaldo would miss out on the final through illness, with Brazil’s talisman recalled to the starting line-up at the final hour after suffering a seizure on the day of the game, it appeared fate was on the side of the French.

So it proved, with Zizou delivering a man-of-the-match performance as a sublime brace of headers helped steer his nation towards a 3-0 victory to secure World Cup glory.

Opening the scoring with a decisive header at the near post from an Emmanuel Petit corner in the 27th minute, Zidane struck again from the opposite side to send France into a commanding lead on the brink of half-time. Arsenal’s Petit would seal the deal with a well-taken goal in injury time to send the French fans into raptures.

Zidane and his teammates became national heroes following their triumph at the 1998 World Cup, with over one million people lining the Champs-Elysees in Paris to celebrate. All members of the squad were later awarded the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits.

2002 World Cup

Four years on in South Korea and Japan in 2002, France entered the World Cup as favourites. Zidane was still regarded as one of the best players in the world, arriving at the tournament on the back of a breathtaking goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final at Hampden only a matter of weeks previously, having arrived as one of Real Madrid's Galacticos for a world-record £45.5m fee the previous summer.

However, France and Zidane would endure a World Cup to forget as Les Bleus bowed out at the group stages without registering a single goal. Zidane was forced to miss the opening two matches against Senegal and Uruguay having suffered a thigh injury in a tournament warm-up match, before being rushed back for the third game against South Korea to no avail.

This dismal showing in South Korea and Japan would go down as the worst performance by a defending champion in the history of the competition, sparking the beginning of a winners’ curse with the subsequent three World Cup champions also eliminated in the group stages of the following tournament. 

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2006 World Cup

It would take until 2006 in Germany for Zidane to take the World Cup by storm for a second time.

After initially retiring from international football following France’s quarter-final exit to Greece in Euro 2004, the Real Madrid star was convinced to return to the international fold alongside fellow retirees Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram by national team manager Raymond Domenech in 2005.

With Zidane immediately installed as team captain, the experienced trio helped a previously struggling French side win their qualifying group to book France’s place at the World Cup Finals in Germany the following year.

The midfielder became only the fourth Frenchman to reach a century of international caps in a pre-tournament friendly against Mexico, in what would also mark his final match at the Stade de France.

The French had a slow start to the 2006 tournament, finishing second in their group behind Switzerland after drawing their opening two matches against the Swiss and South Korea. After being booked in these two aforementioned games, Zidane sat out France’s 2-0 win over Togo in their final group fixture through suspension.

Returning to the fold for a Round of 16 encounter against Spain, Zizou contributed with a goal and an assist in an impressive 3-1 victory for France. 

This was not to be his finest showing during the competition, however, with Zidane proceeding to deliver one of the tournament’s greatest all-time individual performances in his country’s 1-0 win against World Cup holders Brazil in the quarter-finals. 

Putting on a midfield masterclass against a Brazil team who were only able to muster a single shot on the French goal throughout the 90 minutes, it was Zidane’s cross from a free kick which provided Thierry Henry with the telling assist to fire France into the semi-finals.

A Zidane penalty was enough to see France overcome Portugal by a goal to nil in the semis in Munich and into the World Cup final.

The midfield maestro would once again take centre stage in the biggest match in world football, this time against Italy at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. 

Zidane would come out on the wrong side on this occasion, however, with France defeated on penalties after Marco Materazzi’s header cancelled out Zidane’s cheeky panenka penalty which opened the scoring in the 7th minute. 

However, this final in Berlin is perhaps remembered most for the France legend’s moment of madness in the 110th minute of extra time, with Zidane sent off for head-butting opponent Materazzi in the chest.

Zidane’s infamous headbutt on Materazzi would go down as an iconic World Cup moment in its own right, with public opinion polarised following the incident. 

The image of a disgraced Zidane solemnly walking past the Jules Rimet Trophy after being ordered off would be splashed across newspapers all over the globe the following day. 

The midfielder has since asserted that the act was provoked by his Italian opponent, and whilst no explanation has been officially confirmed, it is widely believed Zidane saw red after Materazzi uttered an insult related to his family.

The events of this night in Berlin meant Zidane became only the fourth player in World Cup history to score in two separate finals, and just the second man to be sent off in two different tournaments after Cameroonian Rigobert Song.

The day after the 2006 final, the last match of Zidane’s professional career, the Frenchman was awarded the Golden Ball as player of the tournament.

Although denied his second World Cup title in agonising fashion in Berlin, the events of the final undeniably marked an iconic end to an iconic career for Zidane.

There have been few players to have left such a lasting legacy on the illustrious competition than the masterful Zinedine Zidane, certainly in the blue of his beloved France.

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