November 4, 2005

Zidane: The Greatest Athlete You've Never Heard Of

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Most of you have never heard of him, but he is the greatest athlete since Michael Jordan’s second retirement. His career accomplishments make Tiger Woods’ resume seem weak. He is a hero to millions around the world, yet, few of you would recognize the legend if you saw him.

His name is Zinedine Zidane. Algerian by descent and born in France, Zidane is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, a Christian Dior model, adidas’s biggest athlete behind David Beckham, and among other things, a soccer immortal.

My introduction to the legend came in my freshman year of high school. My parents had just come back from vacation in Italy. My dad had been captivated by a televised soccer tournament that, whenever he was in a restaurant, would cause enough excitement for waiters to regularly drop everything and run to a television with their hands on their heads. And one player, my dad said, was far better than the rest.

My dad described how other teams would surround Zidane with four or five players whenever the midfielder had the ball, but not actually attack him. They feared he would just dribble and pass the ball right through everyone. Sometimes, he did.

But what did I care about European soccer? I chose to forget about the man who was recently voted the best European soccer player of the last 50 years in a UEFA (Europe’s governing soccer body) fan poll.

It’s a decision I still regret.

Zidane has won every major team award and individual accolade in the modern game.

For his club teams, Zidane has won league championships and a European championship, frequently earning MVP awards. For his national team, Zidane has led France to a World Cup and European championship – soccer’s two most respected tournaments. And internationally, Zidane has also won MVP accolades, including the 1998 European Player of the Year, 2000 UEFA European Championship Player of the Tournament, and a record three FIFA World Player of the Year awards.

Flashback to his international debut in 1994. He entered the game against the Czech Republic with France down 2-0. A stunning strike in the 85th minute and a header off a corner two minutes later clinched the tie for a rebuilding French team.

On July 12, 1998, Zidane would shock the world and cement his legendary status. The midfielder single-handedly dominated defending champion Brazil in the finals of the World Cup with two first half goals, mesmerizing the world in the process. That evening, his face was flashed upon the Champs-Elysees in Paris, as the French celebrated in the streets and proclaimed “Zidane for President.” Those chants still occur today.

Zidane is like Michael Jordan on steroids. Or Barry Bonds with Jordan’s clutch abilities. He carries his teams, winning everything with his astonishing performances. Give him an inch and he takes the game.

He led France to the European Championship crown in 2000 with play that was so brilliant, renowned French sports newspaper L’Equipe stated that, “watching Zidane in Euro 2000 was like falling in love.”

This was the soccer tournament my dad described to me.

His sublimely volleyed, game-winning goal captured the 2002 Champions League (Europe’s club championship) for Real Madrid. Some regard it as one of the greatest goals ever.

And the legend continued last June, as Zidane rescued France in the 2004 European Championship with two second-half injury time goals to tie and defeat England.

Stunned, the English announcer eventually said, “Zinedine Zidane – who else could have done that?”

In 2003, I got my first-ever glimpse of the legend playing for his club team, Real Madrid. Aired on ESPN2, the match was the first of a two-game series against Manchester United. It was billed as the game of the year between the world’s two best club teams – and it was. I had never watched a European soccer game before, so I didn’t expect much, but what I saw changed my view about sports forever.

Zidane destroyed the Red Devils by himself. He moved differently than everyone else, he seemed to float with the ball. He didn’t just fake-out world-class players like Beckham with unfathomable ease and fluidity, he faked out the entire Man U team. The crowd “oohhed” and “ahhhed” almost every time he touched the ball, watching him unleash dangerous passes and mind-bending fakes across the entire field, setting up other players to score with laughable ease. He assisted on the first two goals of Madrid’s 3-0 win, and had the secondary assist on two more in Madrid’s 6-4 series win.

Watching him that day, I realized he was an athlete unlike anything I’d ever seen. He had something more than just physical prowess. He was more than just a genius playmaker. He was more than just an athlete. Pele called him the greatest soccer player of the last decade. I call him the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen.

When he was voted the best player of the last 10 years in a July 2005 ESPN Soccernet poll, the description of him said, “not since Diego Maradona has one player mastered every facet of the game so completely. That Zidane is still plying his trade is a gift for every football fan; enjoy him while you can.”

Zidane is now ancient by soccer’s standards – age 33 – and though his magic is fading, he can still dominate like no other at times. When the World Cup arrives this June, Zidane will be showing his magic No. 10 jersey for last time. He will retire from soccer by 2007, but whether he’ll even wait that long is unclear.

I was a fool not to watch Zidane in his prime. I missed so much magic. You just don’t know sports until you’ve seen the legend in his No. 10 France jersey, putting on an absolute soccer spectacle.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t miss the chance to see him in June.

Josh Perlin is a Sun Staff Writer. My Pitch will appear periodically this semester.

Archived article by Josh Perlin