When Zinedine Zidane became a superstar

Zinedine Zidane Mundial GOAL GFXPeter O'Toole

Football is an industry both fuelled and documented by famous quotes. Yet even in this age of misinformation, it’s still surprising how some of its most memorable lines have been wilfully reinterpreted or were wholesale fabrications from the beginning.

Once they’re out there, woven into the game’s rich tapestry, our human nature can’t help but open us up to the possibility of belief. “Something magical happens once it’s put down on paper,” Eugene Jerome said of the written word in Biloxi Blues. “They figure no one would have gone to the trouble of writing it down if it wasn’t true.”

One such quote has been attached to its attributed source like a faithful dog since 1995, becoming the catch-all reference that highlights the insularity of English football. Blackburn Rovers were the champions of England, with Kenny Dalglish making provisional plans to bolster their squad in defence of their title.

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He approached his chairman Jack Walker with a request to sign a gifted but relatively unknown midfielder from France, available for buttons if Blackburn moved quickly. Walker dismissed the idea, with a riposte that’s veracity has been open to debate ever since. “Why do you want to sign Zidane,” he allegedly told Dalglish, “when we have Tim Sherwood?”

Doubts about Zinedine Zidane in his formative years weren’t solely confined to people in England who hadn’t seen him. The pantheon of the greatest players the game has seen is littered with those who were teenage prodigies, and few of the true greats blossomed as late as Zidane. 

It was the scout Jean Varraud that took him off the tough La Castellane council estate in Marseille’s 15th arrondissement for a six-week trial with AS Cannes when he was 15. Zidane did enough to get signed as a professional and made his full debut a year later in 1989, an appearance that earned him a tasty bonus of 5,000 francs.

While the club was trying to incentivise Zidane into unleashing the full array of his talent, they also needed him to fill out his wiry teenage frame. That would take a little time.

“At 18, he wasn’t the great Zidane, no,” recalled his Cannes team-mate Luis Fernandez, a former cornerstone of France’s Carre Magique in the 1980s. “He wasn’t strong physically, but technically he was superb.

"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.”

MUNDIAL Maldini promo GFXMundial

This article was first published in MUNDIAL, a quarterly print magazine dedicated to reminding you why you love football. You can buy the next issue here.

It wasn’t until Boro Primorac took over as manager in 1990 that Cannes started to put their faith in that ability. Zidane became a regular under him in the 1990–91 season, establishing a place in midfield alongside Fernandez.

His first goal in professional football, a deft lob against Nantes, was rewarded with a gift of a new Renault Clio from the club President. It was one performance that season in particular that hinted at what would eventually follow when Zidane stood out as Cannes beat French champions Marseille 1–0 in the Stade Vélodrome. He had been a huge boyhood fan of his local side and had been regularly heading back to watch them play after leaving the city.

Cannes finished fourth in Ligue 1 in 1990–91, earning a UEFA Cup spot and the club’s first ever games in European competition. It was an adventure that came at a cost. Cannes were knocked out in the third round the following year, during which Zidane had to fulfil his military service.

The European distraction contributed to a disastrous season for Cannes, who finished 19th in the table and were relegated. The expectation that summer was that their most saleable asset would be offloaded to Marseille, the incumbent French champions and the team Zidane had always supported, but the homecoming never materialised. Marseille’s coach, Raymond Goethals, passed on Zidane because he was “too slow”.

Instead, Zidane hopped on an elevator going in the opposite direction to Cannes. FC Girondins de Bordeaux had been a dominant force in French football in the mid-80s, winning three championships in four seasons, before a financial scandal overwhelmed the club and saw them automatically relegated to Ligue 2 in 1991.

Now, they were back after winning promotion at the first attempt and had already plundered the demoted Cannes squad for Eric Guerit and Jean-Francois Daniel. When Marseille unexpectedly baulked at signing Zidane, Bordeaux coach Rolland Courbis took a low-priced punt on him instead.   

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Courbis was also from Marseille and formed a paternalistic bond with his new player that smoothed the transition into life in the French south-west. While Zidane’s family and friends referred to him by his middle name of Yazid, it was Courbis that coined the nickname that would become famous – Zizou.

Bordeaux quickly realised that they had a serious talent on their hands, albeit a sensitive one. Zidane cut a broodingly intense figure, who took in the world with the deep, piercing eyes of a people watcher. Coaxing him out of that shell was a long-term project.

“He was a player who appeared an introvert,” said Bordeaux’s technical coach Pierrot Labat. “In fact, he doubted himself. I attempted to instil confidence into him.

"It was one of the first times – the first time in fact – that I applied psychology in order to provide him with the self-belief that allowed him to produce his full potential.”

The scope of that potential was huge. Zidane possessed an astonishing repertoire of close-quarter skills. Drag-backs, Cruyff turns, stepovers, back heels, [i]roulette’s[i], and nutmegs could all be deployed at will, with a featherlight sense of touch and timing.

He was also deceptively quick—deceptive enough for Goethals to miss it, certainly—and his balance when in possession or running with the ball was freakish given his stature. At Bordeaux, his frame completed its journey from gangly adolescence to manhood. 

“Six foot two (1.88 metres), Zidane...” recalled Jonathan Woodgate of clapping eyes on him at Real Madrid. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. I was like ‘how big are you?’ Because I didn’t think that.

"His style across the pitch and the way that he moved, he was on a different level from anyone I’ve ever played with, but really slim. Twelve and a half stone (85kg), maybe, tops.”

Confidence slowly started to course through that body. A higher calibre of team-mate also helped, for his sense of belonging as well as his development as a player.

In his first season, Zidane struck up an instant, almost telepathic relationship with striker Christophe Dugarry—along with marauding fullback Bixente Lizarazu, they formed the bedrock of the team.

Zinedine Zidane Christophe Dugarry Bixente Lizarazu GFXGetty

The club finished fourth in Ligue 1 in 1992–93 and again in 1993–94. At the end of the latter season, aged 22, Zidane was given the ‘Best Hope’ award as the most promising young player in France.

That prompted a call-up to the national team, but only as a replacement. The French coach Aimé Jacquet was trying to build a new side out of the wreckage of the squad that had failed to qualify for that summer’s World Cup. It was a pressing concern, with France hosting the next one.

On August 17, 1994, they played the Czech Republic in a friendly in Bordeaux. When Youri Djorkaeff pulled out of the squad, local boy Zidane was called up to take his place but only made the bench. Jacquet’s reservations about Zidane were not just down to self-belief, but also self-indulgence.

“Zidane was out of the ordinary—exceptional—but he didn’t have his influence yet,” said Jacquet. “He hadn’t yet got his personal aura. He played football to enjoy himself; he had exceptional skills, though he wasn’t much of a team player.

"But when he came into the French squad, he joined other talents, who took him on to an international level.” At the Parc Lescure that night, Zidane took it on himself to level up an international.

France were two goals behind when Zidane replaced the Auxerre playmaker Corentin Martins in the 63rd minute. With the game drifting towards full time, Laurent Blanc sent a long, sweeping low pass to Zidane, who let the pace of the ball beat the lunging challenge of his marker.

He then went through the Czech defence with an ease that was almost contemptuous. A quick stepover left Lubos Kubik in his wake before he shuffled the ball quickly between his feet to avoid an attempted tackle by Tomas Repka. From 25 yards out, Zidane then lashed a left-footed drive past Petr Kouba into the far corner. 

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It would’ve been a stunning goal at any stage of a career, let alone an international debut, and he wasn’t even done. Three minutes later, it was 2–2. In a precursor to the greatest night in the history of French football, Zidane powered in a near-post header from a corner.

The Parc Lescure erupted, and France had blagged the unlikeliest of draws. As the camera cut to the coaching staff on the France bench, it caught a wonderful moment, as they all smiled incredulously and processed a uniform realisation: we’ve got one here.

In the television interview afterwards, Zidane said it was the first time at either youth or professional level where he’d scored twice in a game.

"I think of my wife, who is just two months pregnant," he added. "I dedicate my match and my two goals to her." Enzo, named after the Marseille and Uruguay great Enzo Francescoli, would enter the world the following spring. Another gestation was underway; Zidane was on a path to becoming the fulcrum of France’s new team.

Martins had been one contender for that role but played just five more times for France thereafter. Manchester United’s Double-winning inspiration Eric Cantona was the incumbent and had thrown his hands in the air when the equaliser went in. He’d effectively just celebrated a future that didn’t have him in it.

Zidane needed to take his game to a different level with Bordeaux to keep his development accelerating. In 1994–95, they were eliminated from the UEFA Cup in the second round by GKS Katowice and finished seventh in Ligue 1, just outside the automatic qualifying places to re-enter the competition.

Fortune, however, had chucked Bordeaux a bone, as that year UEFA had decided to assume control of a quirky summer competition based in Central Europe.  

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The Intertoto Cup was marketed as ‘The Cup for the Cupless’. It was sold to the lower-ranking teams in less fashionable European leagues who hadn’t qualified for UEFA’s three main tournaments as a rare chance to play in a competitive continental competition. The real reason for its existence was so that betting companies in the region could keep football pools running over the summer.

UEFA initially distanced itself from the competition and refused to organise it due to its origins in the vice of gambling, but eventually took the reins in 1995. Sixty teams entered the tournament, which would have group stages followed by knockout rounds, with two separate finals and thus two champions. There was an added boon for both winners: they would both qualify automatically for the UEFA Cup the following season.

Bordeaux entered the 1995 Intertoto Cup, which kicked off on 1 July. They breezed through their group unbeaten after victories over Norrkoping, Bohemians, and Odense BK, followed by a draw with HJK Helsinki which Zidane missed due to international duty.

He returned for the quarter and semi-finals, in which Bordeaux brushed aside Eintracht Frankfurt and then Heerenveen at the Parc Lescure. On the way to the final, Zidane scored four times, two of which were free kicks – he had now mastered the art of fizzing the ball up and over the wall at speed. 

Bordeaux’s Intertoto Cup Final showcased another side of his complex character. Zidane had already been dismissed once in his career, when he thumped Marcel Desailly as retribution for a stray elbow, in a game between Bordeaux and Marseille in September 1993.

Although Bordeaux would beat Karlsruher SC 4–2 in the two-legged final to win their Intertoto Cup section, the second leg was marred by Zidane’s red card in the 24th minute. The German team had been flying into a few tackles from the outset, and when Thorsten Fink had a nibble at his ankles, Zidane dropped him with a flailing arm to the chin, right in front of the referee.

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Beneath Zidane’s shyness lay dormant a volatile temper that could go off at any moment. He received 14 red cards in his career, most of which were born of retaliation. When Zidane kicked back, he hit hard.

For his dismissal against Karlsruher SC, Zidane received a three-match European ban, during which his team-mates did the grunt work in getting Bordeaux past Vardar of Malta and Rotor Volgograd in the first two rounds of the UEFA Cup. Zidane’s focus in the autumn of 1995 instead switched to his national side, as the anger management issues of one of his international colleagues had created an opportunity within the France team. 

Thanks to his acrobatic retribution at Selhurst Park in January 1995, Cantona was subsequently banned from all football for eight months. In his absence, Zidane took over as the creative hub of Jacquet’s team.

Ten days after Cantona had returned against Liverpool at Old Trafford in October, Zidane inspired France to a 3–1 win over Romania in Bucharest. It was a vital win in qualifying France for Euro 96, and effectively the night France’s future World Cup-winning side was born. Even though Cantona was sensational for Manchester United in the remainder of the 1995–96 season, he was never called up by the national side again.

Zidane’s roll continued into Bordeaux’s third round UEFA Cup tie against Real Betis at the end of the year. Even the miskicks were working in his favour. In a rain-soaked home leg, Zidane sliced a right-footed shot from the edge of the box so badly that it eventually landed at the feet of Daniel Dutuel on the other side of the penalty area. He drilled Bordeaux’s first in a 2–0 victory. 

In the second leg, he caught one perfectly with his left. In just the third minute, Zidane silenced a fervent crowd at the Estadio Benito Villamarín by walking on to a knockdown from a Bordeaux goal kick and launching a preposterous dipping volley over Betis goalkeeper Pedro from 40 yards out.

Zinedine Zidane Bordeaux Betis GFXGetty

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It took the wind right out of Betis. The home side came back to win 2–1, but Zidane had effectively finished the tie. For the quarter-finals the following spring, the standard of competition would go up several levels again.

AC Milan were slumming it in the UEFA Cup. They had been in the final of the Champions League for the previous three seasons and would go on to win Serie A by eight points in the 1995–96 season.

Bordeaux and the UEFA Cup were just a palette cleanser to be dispatched before they returned to the high table to swill champagne around their gums again. The French side had never won a tie against Italian opposition in Europe, and it was no surprise that they went down 2–0 in the San Siro in the first leg.

In the return, the atmosphere at the Parc Lescure had all the anticipatory buzz of one of the great European nights, but it still looked the longest of shots. The team that Bordeaux would have to beat to progress was an absolute p*ss-take.

Milan might have had reserve goalkeeper Mario Ielpo in nets, but the back four in front of him was Christian Panucci, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, and Paolo Maldini. The midfield that Zidane would have to negotiate contained some kid called Patrick Vieira, his national team-mate Desailly, Stefano Eranio, and Roberto Donadoni. Up front, there was George Weah and Roberto Baggio.

Bordeaux had to combat this with the likes of journeyman striker Didier Tholot, the horizontally laid-back Dutch midfielder Richard Witschge, and Danish defender Jakob Friis-Hansen. But they also had Christophe Dugarry, the tireless Lizarazu, and the rising force of Zidane.

That night, any self-doubt had evaporated. Minutes before kick-off, Canal Plus interviewed Zidane in the tunnel and asked if Bordeaux planned to shake them up.

Zinedine Zidane Marcel Desailly Bordeaux AC Milan GFXGetty

“For sure,” Zidane replied. “We don’t have the choice, in any case. We are starting behind, so that is what we will have to do to start the match, and by doing that we make them doubt themselves.” Throughout the interview, his thoughts—and his gaze—were elsewhere. Mentally, Zidane was already on the Parc Lescure pitch.

An early goal is usually key to most seemingly impossible second-leg comebacks, and with 15 minutes gone, Tholot slotted one in for Bordeaux after brilliant work from Lizarazu down the left. As the game progressed, one thing became clear: Zidane was bossing it. He had ascended. Everything we came to know him for was evident that night: the deft touches, the footwork, those understated flourishes that confirmed just who was in charge.

“What he can do with his feet, some people can’t even do it with their hands,” Thierry Henry once said of him. “It’s just magical. Sometimes when he plays with the ball, it seems like he’s dancing.”

Midway through the second half, Zidane laid on a goal for Dugarry with a free kick that took a fortuitous deflection off the side of the referee’s head. Bordeaux were level, and Milan were reeling. Six minutes after that, he teed up one of the most famous goals in Bordeaux’s history.

It’s a cliche to talk of midfielders gliding across a pitch, but it has never been truer of anyone than Zidane. He could saunter through an opposing midfield with the grace of a speed skater circumventing a tight bend. Watching it now, it’s like a trailer for the 10 years that followed.

Shortly after Zidane had nutmegged Desailly near halfway, he received the ball on the left wing and then cut diagonally through the heart of the Milan team. His attempted through ball to Tholot was blocked; when the rebound fell into his path, he prodded it to Dugarry, who bludgeoned the ball high into the net. The Parc Lescure utterly lost it.

Christophe Dugarry Bordeaux GFXGetty

Bordeaux’s 3–2 aggregate victory passed instantly into legend. Buoyed by that result, they swiftly dealt with fellow romantic adventurists Slavia Prague in the semi-finals. More nimble footwork from Zidane set up Dugarry for the solitary winning goal in the Czech capital in the first leg, but disaster struck in the second. Both players were booked in the 1–0 home victory at the Parc Lescure and would miss the first leg of the final with Bayern Munich.

Bordeaux’s European exertions were also causing problems in the league with the club struggling near the relegation zone. In February 1996, they sacked manager Slavo Muslin and replaced him with former boss Gernot Rohr. Bordeaux eventually finished 16th as the weight of an additional 20 European games on a small squad took its toll.

With a grim sense of inevitability, Bayern made mincemeat out of Bordeaux in the final. They won the first leg 2–0 in Munich. When Zidane and Dugarry returned for the second, there was briefly the hope of a repeat of the Milan miracle. Zidane was menacing in the opening stages, but the game turned when the influential Lizarazu was nailed by a horrible challenge from Emil Kostadinov after half an hour and stretchered off.

Bayern went ahead with a deflected goal early in the second half and, to rub salt in the stud wounds, Kostadinov soon nodded in a second. Bordeaux were gone. Bayern eventually ran out 3–1 winners on the night and 5–1 on aggregate to claim the UEFA Cup.

It was a shattering defeat for Bordeaux after their Homeric run from the backwaters of the Intertoto Cup group phase all the way to one of the continent’s flagship finals. Zidane was voted Player of the Year in France and had the faith of the nation invested in him for the European Championship in England that summer.

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France were tepid at Euro 96 – Franz Beckenbauer called their football "lily-livered" – and failed to score in the knockout rounds before the Czech Republic removed them on penalties in the semi-finals.

To say the least, Zidane’s performance that day was leggy. Not only was it his 63rd game of a season that had lasted almost a full year, but he’d also been involved in a car crash just before the tournament that, despite not resulting in serious injury, is far from ideal. 

Even if Walker’s misgivings about Zidane’s true worth in 1995 are apocryphal, similar doubts could be found in other parts of England at the time of Euro 96. The agent Barry Silkman claimed to have offered the chance to sign Zidane to the scouts at Newcastle United that summer, only to be told that they thought the player was overrated.

Martin Edwards, then the Manchester United chairman, has since revealed that Alex Ferguson considered him at that time too, but didn’t think the transfer was worth the risk of upsetting Cantona’s position at the club. 

Zidane’s rapidly realising potential may have been missed by the English audience, but the Italians knew all about it now. He joined the European champions Juventus for £3.2 million ($4m) that summer. The next decade was Zidane’s, where he proved to be superior not just to Sherwood but every other footballer on the planet. 

As a young boy, Zidane had been transfixed by Diego Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup. Twenty years later, when the furore over Zidane’s red card in the World Cup Final in Berlin had eventually subsided, it became clear that he is the only player since Maradona to have imposed their personality so completely on the tournament.

It took a bit of patience and encouragement, but the shy kid from Marseille eventually found the combination of ability and attitude required to become the most influential player in world football. The roots of that transformation can be traced back through France, along the Garonne River and to the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux.
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