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February 17, 2010

Zinedine Zidane: A flawed genius

Few players have the ability to change the face of football with their talent. Zinedine Zidane's touch, grace and skill on the ball have ensured that, despite one of the most public breakdowns in the game's history at the 2006 World Cup final, he remains in the public consciousness as the best player of his generation and an icon to all who have seen him play.

Zinedine Zidane
GettyImagesZinedine Zidane got his hands on the trophy in 1998.

Zidane's exit from the footballing world may live long in the memory, but his impact on the game was immense. A world record transfer fee of 78 million euros from Juventus to Real Madrid in 2001, a perfectly executed volley to seal Champions League success the following year and countless examples of elegance personified have cemented his place in history and his redefining of the attacking midfield role even saw one director create a 90-minute film named 'Zidane: a 20th Century Portrait' which focuses entirely on his play during a match.

Zidane, of Algerian descent, was a symbol for the reconciliation of the racial divisions of France, yet if you speak the words 'Zidane' and 'World Cup' in the same sentence, then images of 'the headbutt seen around the world' are automatically evoked. He cannot escape them. Having scored a penalty with Antonin Panenka-like nerve (albeit needing the aid of the crossbar) to put France ahead against Italy, Zidane could only watch as Marco Materazzi levelled the scores to send the 2006 final into extra-time.

The Frenchman had risen from the ashes to lead his side to Berlin and was riding the crest of wave as his performances earned him critical acclaim from every corner of the globe. But the wave would come crashing down around him as, with just ten minutes of the game left, he headbutted Materazzi in the chest after the Italian had made a remark about his sister.

Rightly given the red-card, Zidane then provided one of the most iconic images in World Cup history as he walked past the Jules Rimet trophy and down the tunnel. He would not get his hands on the prize either, as David Trezeguet's missed penalty in the shoot-out ensured that Italy would be crowned World Champions and Zidane would end his career in disgrace.

Regrettably, the incident signalled the final moment of his legacy and served to highlight the proximity between Zidane's genius and madness. It did not completely destroy what he had worked so hard to build up - he was too good a player for that to happen - but it left a sour taste on what should have been a night of celebration.

Zidane's World Cup career first began to blossom on home soil in 1998. Having taken over the playmaker role from the inimitable Eric Cantona in 1994, France's failure to qualify for the showpiece event in the United States ensured that Zidane was forced to wait for his chance to shine on the world's biggest stage. He didn't disappoint.

He took his opportunity with both hands and the midfielder led his country effortlessly through the group stages with his array of spontaneous attacking verve and pinpoint passing. It wasn't until the final that Zidane made a mark on the scoresheet himself, but great players are often defined by their ability to make an impact in big games and, in the biggest of them all, Zidane rose twice to head France into a 2-0 lead over Brazil, before Emmanuel Petit's goal killed off the tie in the final few seconds.

Lifting the trophy in Paris, he would go on to pick up the first of three FIFA World Player of the Year awards and, amid confusion over the mental state of Brazilian striker Ronaldo, Zidane emerged as the star attraction.

Four years later, Zidane was at the peak of his powers. Having led France to success at Euro 2000, his world record transfer to Real Madrid saw him pick up the Champions League trophy in a World Cup year and the stage was set for yet more success.

However, his impact on the French side was there for all to see in Korea/Japan when a thigh injury kept him out of the first two group games. Defeat to Senegal in the opener and a disappointing 0-0 draw with Uruguay left too much to do in the final game against table-toppers Denmark and a half-fit Zidane could only struggle against the tide in a 2-0 defeat.

France returned home with the ignominy of failing to score a single goal hanging over them, but Zidane's form for Real Madrid the following season - in clinching the league and cup double - only served to highlight how much his national side relied on him and ultimately saw him named FIFA Player of the Year again.

With a shock exit at the hands of eventual winners Greece at Euro 2004, Zidane followed the lead of the likes of Bixente Lizarazu and Marcel Desailly and chose to retire from the international scene. But, once again, the French side struggled without him and was persuaded to make a glorious return to save their flagging World Cup qualifying campaign in 2006 after a meeting with coach Raymond Domenech. Sitting fourth behind Ireland, Switzerland and Israel, France eventually topped their group and claimed their place at Germany 2006.

Zinedine Zidane
GettyImagesThe midfielder walks past the trophy on his way down the tunnel.

Zidane struggled to assert himself early on in the draws with Switzerland and South Korea and two bookings ensured that he picked up a suspension for the crucial 2-0 win over Togo that sealed their progress.

Questions over his temperament that had followed him his whole career were raised again, but in leading his side to wins over Spain, Brazil and Portugal on route to the final, Zidane showed his true class. A monumental display of attacking football throughout the tournament rightly saw him given the award for 'Best Player' and perhaps that says it all.

Even after the events of the final had tarnished his reputation somewhat, Zidane still walked away with plaudits and remains one of the finest players ever to have graced the World Cup.