November 30, 2006

Revisiting Zidane's Prowess

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I wrote my first-ever column on Nov. 3, 2005, about how Zinedine Zidane is the greatest athlete since Michael Jordan’s second (mid-1998) retirement, if not one of the greatest ever. In that column, I expounded, “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.”

Zidane could’ve crumbled in an aging heap, walked away a legend and made a mockery of my words. Instead, he captained France to World Cup qualification, through the Knockout rounds past tournament favorite Brazil, and into the final, winning the World Cup’s award for top player … just after being red carded in the final for a disgraceful head butt in his last-ever game.

A little over a month ago, when the FIFA World Player of the Year shortlist of nominees was announced with Zidane included, I expressed “a feeling” to friends that Zidane would win soccer’s biggest award for a record-breaking fourth time. Yesterday, FIFA announced that “Zizou” was among the top-3 vote-getters for the award, along with newly-crowned Ballon d’Or (Europe’s top player) honoree Fabio Cannanvaro and the consensus best player in the world, Ronaldinho.

Zidane should win the award and I bet he will win the award. Why would I go out on a limb again, even after that debacle in his last professional game? Even after some pundits’ beliefs that Cannavaro was more deserving of the World Cup’s top award, and the defender’s winning the title of Europe’s best player; and even after Ronaldinho, who is widely considered the best active player in the world, has won the World Player of the Year for the last two seasons?

It comes down to three things: 1.) who played consistently better — especially when it mattered. 2.) who genuinely carried his team and 3.) who was more valuable to his team and finally, how much sympathy do we have?

The award is voted on by international coaches and captains, and consequently, it’s results are always skewed towards individuals’ performances in international play. So the question is, who was the best player at the international level?

Ronaldinho did very little and was billed as one of the tournament’s biggest disappointments despite his skills. Cannavaro was clearly the top defender in the World Cup, if not throughout World Cup qualifiers. His play was nothing short of world class at the back. Zidane too was inspirational. He orchestrated nearly every one of France’s attacks in those final months, scoring goals at a striker’s pace. His qualification play was inconsistent, but he scored multiple crucial goals regardless. And even though his first-round play at the World Cup left something to be desired, his offensive play was beyond world class — closer to legendary — in the knockout stages, where he managed to score or assist on France’s last (and decisive) goal in every match. Of course, all were victories — except the final. Zidane and Cannavaro consistently came through when they were needed.

I favor Zidane’s offensive play because, tactically and technically, it was at a level that we haven’t seen in a long time, whereas Cannavaro’s defensive play happens every World Cup. I think many of the voters would agree.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, one favored the Italian captain on this point. Look at who was more valuable to his team’s success. Without Cannavaro, it’s possible Italy wouldn’t have won the World Cup. Its defense would still be among the world’s elite, and Italy plays defensively regardless, while its offense still has the fire power to get the job done. But the Azzuri’s tactics and personnel certainly get it through to the knockout stages without its captain, but the team probably falls to Germany in the semis … or they do just as well.

What about France? France barely qualified for the World Cup, only clinching after Zidane returned from international retirement to rescue the squad. Zidane was begged to return because France was struggling so mightily. France likely doesn’t even make the World Cup without Zidane. And although Les Blues had to win a game without its captain to make the knockout stages, it’s highly unlikely they would have done well at all if they qualified. France went through a historic goal-scoring drought in the pre-knockout stage, and had Zidane not rejuvenated the team’s attack, it almost surely would have faltered.

Zidane not only saved France’s attack, but he stepped up his play so remarkably that he carried his team to the final of the World Cup, becoming the fourth person to ever score in two World Cup championship matches. Not only was Zidane more valuable to his team than Cannavaro, he also produced some of the most phenomenal and tactical soccer we’ve seen since … well, the last time he was playing that well. Like Cannavaro and unlike Ronaldinho, he consistently produced when it mattered most, but Zidane also performed at a level higher than either of his opponents reached.

This brings me to my last point — when Gianluigi Buffon slapped away Zidane’s extra-time header in the final, he also slapped away Zidane’s chance to undoubtedly convince doubters that he was in fact one of the best players ever. His red card minutes later was a stupid act that may rank as one of the biggest sports follies of our lifetime. Yes, it crushed his team, but it doesn’t nullify all his actions before. And it doesn’t make him unworthy of the award.

Was the act horrible on many levels, and probably one of the worst-timed assaults in all of sports history? Yeah. And Zidane should have faced a far harsher penalty than a symbolic three-match ban, while FIFA should’ve taken a stronger stand on the issue of violence in the sport.

But that smack to Marco Materazzi’s chest just wasn’t bad enough that it should cause others to forget his greatness. As much as Zidane should be punished, his play should be lauded. I think voters realized this, considered his brilliant play and voted him winner. At least, I hope they did.

I also hope that – like me – you’ll cheer for Zidane too on Dec. 18, despite his foolish act.

Josh Perlin is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Thursday this semester.