Before being undone by the brilliant pragmatism of Italy in the final, World Cup 2006 was in many ways Zinedine Zidane’s.
The man who had been France’s tournament-winner in 1998 was reborn after a slow start, and he would bear the brunt of the nation’s expectations as they progressed all the way to Berlin, where they would stumble only after a dramatic penalty shootout.
|VIEW FROM FRANCE
|By Johann Crochet | Goal France
Before the game against Spain, French supporters had struggled with a difficult beginning to the 2006 World Cup. Draws against Switzerland and South Korea, had left Les Bleus needing to beat Togo by two goals, without the suspended Zidane. They did it, but only just.
This shaky start caused scepticism. Against Spain, everybody feared a loss that would have continued the side's dreadful recent record after the failures in World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004.
Zidane was superb. With the game level, he nearly got an assist for Malouda before Vieira put Les Bleues into the lead.
France had fallen behind in the first half to David Villa’s perfectly placed penalty but Franck Ribery had shown fine composure to draw Les Bleus level before the break. In the closing 10 minutes, though, ‘Zizou’ showed all his match-winning pedigree, first delivering the free kick that led to Patrick Vieira’s headed second, and then delivering the knockout punch with a typically clinical finish.
Zidane’s efforts for the France side of 2006 were encapsulated in that strike. Arguably more impressive than the composure to beat Carles Puyol before sliding a finish beyond Real Madrid club-mate Iker Casillas at his near post, was the fact that it was the Frenchman who caught Cesc Fabregas dawdling in possession to create the opportunity in the first place.
Quite simply, this action, which secured a 3-1 success, emphasised the Marseille-born star’s status as France’s talisman and confirmed his position as one of the game’s outstanding footballers even after celebrating his 34th birthday only three days earlier and having announced his impending retirement prior to the competition.
“As for Zidane, he kept going for the whole match. In the 89th minute, he stuck to it - he still accelerated,” Domenech said after the match.
And there were doubts over Zizou. A sluggish start to the tournament had seen him struggle to inspire his team-mates, with in-fighting and back biting apparent in their camp during the group stages.
Buoyed by the fine display against Spain, though, France would go from strength-to-strength, with Zidane incessant at the vanguard. He assisted Thierry Henry’s winner in the quarter-final against Brazil, and in the last four, the No.10’s penalty was sufficient to see off Portugal.
Zidane’s swansong was to come against Italy. Although he opened the scoring from the stop, his match will forever be remembered for his headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the second half of extra-time and led to the iconic images of him tramping forlornly past the World Cup trophy. It was no way for one of the game’s greats to bow out.
Zidane was ultimately named the tournament’s outstanding player, controversially beating Fabio Cannavaro to the award, so it is ironic that the moment that has been immortalised in statue – as well as the minds of many fans – was his moment of madness.
It would be more fitting, however, if he was remembered the last man to inspire the demise of La Roja in a major competition all those eight years ago.