Zinedine Zidane at 50: Becoming the best and Marco Materazzi's infamous World Cup insult

Manchester United legend David Beckham was recently asked by Gary Neville to name the greatest footballer he played alongside during his illustrious career.

Let’s not forget, Beckham’s former team-mates include Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Kaka and the Brazilian Ronaldo. His response? Zinedine Zidane… and Beckham isn’t the only player who shares that view.

The great Frenchman turns 50 on June 23 and it’s been a remarkable half-century, to say the least.

At certain points during his career, Zidane has been both the world’s best footballer and manager – a tag the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp can’t boast. Here, Mirror Football takes a look at the highs and lows of Zidane’s footballing story.

Becoming the world’s best

Zidane’s breakthrough came as a teenager at Cannes, a glamorous destination in the south of France known for its films rather than its football. Although Cannes are now in the fifth tier of French football, they were competing in the top flight in the early 1990s.

In fact, Zidane helped them qualify for the UEFA Cup in 1990-91 after they finished fourth in Ligue 1. He made 31 appearances that term and was now recognized as one of the best youngsters in French football. Sadly, Cannes were relegated the following season.

Zidane needed a new top-flight club and found one in Bordeaux. He went on to establish himself as the best player in France and a star of the national team over the next four years, winning Ligue 1’s Player of the Year award in 1995-96.

Zinedine Zidane scored twice in the World Cup final in 1998
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Image:

Reuters)

Is Zinedine Zidane the greatest footballer of all time? Let us know in the comments below!

Yet Bordeaux could not win silverware during his time at the club, losing 5-1 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup final in 1995-96. That season proved why Zidane needed a bigger stage as the French side finished just four points above the relegation zone.

Fortunately for the playmaker, reigning European champions Juventus came calling … and it was there where he became the best player on the planet.

Zidane went on to win six trophies in five seasons in Turin, including back-to-back Serie A titles. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 1998 and was twice named FIFA’s World Player of the Year. Although few ever did, no one was doubting his greatness now.

Zidane’s crowning moment came in the World Cup final in 1998, when he scored twice to secure a 3-0 win against Brazil and France’s maiden global title. Two years later, they defeated Italy via the golden goal rule to win the Euros and complete a famous double.

Zidane wasn’t always the star of the show in an illustrious France team that included Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff – but he was their talisman. That is a testament to how great a player he truly was.

Champions League odyssey

Zidane joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2001 and won the Champions League the following season
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Image:

Reuters)

By the summer of 2001, Zidane has achieved pretty much everything in the game. Yet there was one significant honor missing from his illustrious CV – the Champions League.

Juventus had come close to winning the biggest prize in European football. The Italian hopefuls lost the 1997 final to Borussia Dortmund – suffering a 3-1 defeat in Munich – and were beaten 1-0 by real Madrid in Amsterdam 12 months later.

Zidane needed a new challenge … and Real came calling. The Spanish giants paid a world-record fee of £ 45.8million to bring the Frenchman to Madrid. He went on to hold the transfer record for eight years, such was the magnitude of the deal.

Zidane dazzled in Spain over the next five years, the last of his playing days. He won six trophies – including the La Liga title – and was named FIFA’s World Player of the Year again in 2003. But it’s what he did in Glasgow on May 15, 2002 that defines his time at Real.

The footballing icon produced a incredible left-footed volley to score the winner in the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen. The audacious strike was unique, something that has not been repeated since. Few would dare try it, in truth.

“It [the goal] didn’t surprise me, “recalled Zidane’s Real team-mate Steve McManaman,” You don’t want to sound arrogant but you know I had faith in him doing that. It was as if he scored and the weight of the world fell off his shoulders and he could sort of really, really enjoy himself. “

By May 2006, Zidane knew his time was up. He announced his intention to retire from professional football after the upcoming World Cup in Germany. Everyone expected a last dance … but no one predicted the bizarre incident that followed.

Heading (literally) into the sunset

Zidane was sent off in his last ever game after headbutting Marco Materazzi
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Image:

Reuters)

The World Cup went swimmingly for France until the final. They negotiated a tricky group before wins against Spain, defending champions Brazil and Portugal. Zidane’s influence as captain was obvious, scoring crucial goals against Spain and Portugal.

France’s opponents in the final were Italy – a formidable side blessed with the talents of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Yet France would’ve been confident of winning after Zidane slotted home an early penalty.

Marco Materazzi scored Italy’s equalizer and it remained level until the two scorers clashed in the 110th minute. Out of nowhere, Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the chest to leave the world in shock. It instantly became one of football’s most famous moments. There’s even a giant statue of the incident in Qatar ahead of this year’s World Cup!

Let’s not forget, this wasn’t just a World Cup final – it was Zidane’s last game. His final act of a glittering career was headbutting a former Everton defender. Italy went on to win the final on penalties, leaving everyone asking – why did Zidane do it?

“I wasn’t expecting it in that moment,” recalled Materazzi. “I was lucky enough that the whole episode took me by surprise because if I had expected something like that to happen and had been ready for it, I’m sure both of us would have ended up being sent off.”

Materazzi went on to say: “There had been a bit of contact between us in the area. He had scored France’s goal in the first half and our coach [Marcello Lippi] told me to mark him. After that first brush between us, I apologized but he reacted badly.

“The late tackles, altercations and exchanges continued until 110 minutes, when things reached a head. After the third clash, I frowned and he retorted: ‘I’ll give you my shirt later’. I replied that I’d rather have his sister than his shirt. “

When recently asked about the headbutt, Zidane said: “I’m not at all proud of what I did but it’s part of it’s part of my past.”

Zidane dominates again

Zidane is the only manager in history to win three consecutive European Cups
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Image:

Getty Images)

After his headbutt, Zidane’s time at the top seemed over. But then in January 2016 – almost a decade after the World Cup – he was thrown back into the limelight. The Frenchman was appointed Real’s new manager, replacing the sacked Rafa Benitez.

Zidane has been involved in Real’s coaching set-up for around six years. He was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant during the 2013-14 campaign and was placed in charge of the club’s Castilla team in June 2014, so he wasn’t exactly a coaching novice.

Yet few predicted the incredible success that followed. Real won three consecutive Champions League titles over the next two-and-a-half years – beating Juventus, Atletico Madrid and Liverpool – as Zidane became the first manager in history to achieve the feat.

For that, he was named FIFA’s Best Men’s Coach in 2017 and acknowledged as a modern great alongside Ancelotti, Klopp, Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and others.

Zidane left Real in May 2018 but returned the following March to win his second La Liga title as manager. He quit the Spanish giants for a second time in May 2021 and remains unattached with fans wondering what’s next for the footballing legend.

He’s been tipped to succeed Deschamps as France boss after the World Cup, yet there are no guarantees that will happen. One thing is for sure, however. Zidane’s legacy as a great of the game is confirmed … and he’s probably left a dent in Materazzi’s chest, too.

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