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Zinedine Zidane's amazing 11-month Uefa Cup odyssey

By Brian Oliver
One of football’s most famous No.10s will always look upon the Uefa Cup and its little brother, the Intertoto Cup, with great fondness. Zinedine Zidane came of age in those two competitions during 11 remarkable months that changed his life and put him on the path to greatness.

Zidane played 63 games in 51 weeks in his remarkable non-stop season, and the club highlight was a famous 3-0 quarter-final defeat of AC Milan. “That was special,” he said years later. “It was my first big victory as a professional footballer.”

The story starts in June 1995, when Girondins de Bordeaux returned to pre-season training early. The previous season had ended on May 20 and Bordeaux found themselves in seventh place. That meant qualification for the Intertoto Cup, which gave them a backdoor route to the grander stages of European football.

Teams who finished outside the qualifying places for the Champions League and the Uefa Cup – the predecessor to the Europa League – played in June, July and August in the Intertoto. There was no outright winner, but the prize for the winning ‘finalists’ was a place in the Uefa Cup.

Not everyone liked the Intertoto Cup and two English clubs – Tottenham and Wimbledon – were fined for fielding weakened teams in Zidane’s brilliant summer.

Wimbledon is better known for tennis than football, and the famous grass-court championships – which would be won in 1995 by Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras – were only halfway through when Bordeaux kicked off their Intertoto Cup campaign on July 1, at home to Norrkoping of Sweden.

Bordeaux won 6-2 in front of a few hundred spectators. Zidane scored after six minutes. By August 22, he had scored three more Intertoto Cup goals, played six more games, and helped Bordeaux into the Uefa Cup.

Zidane, pictured in January 1996 with Youri Djorkaeff, cemented his place in the France team in 1995
He even squeezed in an international friendly appearance in that period, a goalless draw in Norway in late July. During the previous season Zidane had become an established member of the French team, taking over the playmaker role from Eric Cantona. After the horror of failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals, France, who would host the next World Cup in 1998, needed to improve, and fast. Zidane, along with Bordeaux team-mates Christophe Dugarry and Bixente Lizarazu, helped them to qualify for Euro 96 in England.

In August, Zidane scored in the two-legged Intertoto Cup semi-final against Karlsruhe, of Germany, which Bordeaux won 4-2 on aggregate. His opponents in the Karlsruhe team included the German World Cup winner Thomas Hassler and a little-known Croatian, Slaven Bilic, whose next meeting with Zidane would be in the knockout stages at France 98.

There were plenty of other big names in the Uefa Cup. Bilic’s superstar Croatia team-mate Davor Suker led the Sevilla forward line. Hassler’s fellow World Cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann scored 15 goals for Bayern Munich – a Uefa Cup record at the time – playing alongside the biggest name in French football in the early 1990s, Jean-Pierre Papin. Bayern’s captain was Lothar Matthaus, who had lifted the 1990 World Cup after leading Germany to victory over Argentina.

Luis Figo and Gheorghe Hagi were the stars at Barcelona, who did not make it past the quarter-finals. Another beaten quarter-finalist was Brazil’s Ronaldo, who scored six goals for PSV. And a couple of future Czech stars at Euro 96 – Karel Poborsky and Pavel Nedved - would light up the tournament for two Prague clubs, Slavia and Sparta.

Zidane outshone them all. He made eight Uefa Cup appearances, orchestrating that stunning victory over AC Milan and leading Bordeaux all the way to the final.

He and his great friend Dugarry, Bordeaux’s top scorer, were both suspended for the first leg of the final in Munich. They returned for the second leg with Bordeaux trailing 2-0, and could do nothing to stop the Germans winning again, 3-1. The long run came to a shuddering halt, but it had been a glorious effort.

That would be Zidane’s last game for Bordeaux, whom he had joined from his first club, Cannes, in 1992. He had been a raw talent with a volatile temperament when he signed as a teenager. He left, for Juventus, as a 23-year-old now known as ‘Zizou’ who was admired not just for his remarkable skill, but for his self-control on and off the pitch.

“You could see he was an extraordinary player straight away,” said Rolland Courbis, one of the coaches who worked closely with Zidane when he arrived at Bordeaux. “But it was a moment in his career when you couldn’t afford to do just anything with him. You couldn’t just give him his head and burn him out in one season.”

In 1992, maybe not. But in 1995-96, there was no stopping Zidane. The Uefa Cup story ended at Bordeaux’s Stade Lescure on May 15 but his season was far from finished. Zidane was off to England for Euro 96, in which France went unbeaten to the semi-finals, where they lost on penalties to the Czech Republic. That was on June 26. Zidane’s season, for club and country, had lasted five days short of a calendar year.

Bordeaux were clearly affected by playing so many games and finished a disappointing 16th in the league. The national team’s highlights had included a 10-0 thrashing of Azerbaijan. But the high point of that amazing season for Zidane, and the game that sparked the interest of Europe’s top clubs, was in the Uefa Cup in March.

Zidane is challenged by Milan's Marcel Desailly in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals
Bordeaux were well beaten at San Siro, where Roberto Baggio scored in Milan’s 2-0 first-leg victory in the quarter-finals. Milan had thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final and had reached the final again in 1995, losing to Ajax a few weeks before Zidane kicked off against Norrkoping. Their back line featured Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Marcel Desailly; just ahead of them was a young Patrick Vieira. It was unthinkable that they would lose a two-goal lead in France.

The Bordeaux fans seemed to sense something special might happen, though. “They took the atmosphere to another level,” Zidane said later. “They were so positive – and they transmitted that feeling to the players.”

Bordeaux pulled back a goal in the first half, then Zidane’s free kick was deflected off the back of the referee for Dugarry to level the tie.

Zidane then showed sublime skill for the winner. An attempted pass through the Milan defence was blocked, and Zidane was falling over as it rebounded towards him. As he was tumbling he somehow guided the ball into Dugarry’s path and the striker scored. Bordeaux won 3-0; Milan were out.

Zidane had made his mark. The celebration of that winning goal showed how much it meant to him. Many years later he told Goal: “I loved creating goals, being there, close to the area. It was my thing. I liked creating goals better than scoring myself. Playing by instinct has always been my quality.”

He was voted footballer of the year in France, in a team that finished four places off the bottom of the league, and was on his way to Juventus for £3.2 million. His next transfer, to Real Madrid in 2001, would break the world record. By then he was the best player in the world.

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