Zidane the greatest of all time

weighs in on the ‘Greatest Footballer of All Time’ debate, making the case for French legend Zinedine Zidane

Image: ivalladt via flickr Creative Commons

Image: ivalladt via flickr Creative Commons

The debate over the world’s greatest player will always exist – the difference in generations, leagues, positions and nationalities means it’s ultimately unsolvable. Who is to say that it requires less skill being a defender than by being a striker? None can say for sure, yet Fabio Cannavaro is the only defender to have won the Ballon D’or in this century. In this random meandering of thoughts, I will propose a different player to the usual Messi, Maradona, Pele debate. Bare with me, make some tea, and don’t judge me quite yet – I think the greatest player who has ever lived is Zinedine Zidane.

Now most of you would probably say that whilst you acknowledge Zidane was a great player, he isn’t comparable to those three footballing gods. The problem however is that the regular judgements made are based on goals and assists. If you look at what a footballer is judged on ultimately though, Zidane’s achievements, but more his performances especially in the key matches, provide (I hope!) a compelling argument for his rightful place on top of the footballing world.

The importance of this second factor cannot be overestimated – the ability to play well and dictate the big matches is something that only the very best players can do. Leagues and trophies are decided on the big matches. It was Zidane’s ability to dominate in these games which makes him so exceptional – even in a match against the world’s best, he would be a class above. Look at the World Cup finals in 1998 and 2006, the 2001 Champions League final, the quarter final against Brazil in 2006 against the tournament favourites and defending champions, and numerous others besides.

Amongst the many adulating quotes about Zidane, one stands out. Not just because of who said it, but also because what they said emphasises exactly his memorising ability to stand out amongst the world’s best, and inspire his team – “Zidane was from another planet. When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple” (Zlatan Ibrahimovic). Zidane, perhaps more than any other player, performed on the big occasion, and that is the mark of the greatest player.

Aside from this ability to dominate in big games, there is another string to my argument. Zidane was also the only player who has achieved the greatest success possible on both the club and national level, something that neither Messi, Ronaldo, Pele nor Maradona did.

It is unquestionable that Zidane achieved huge success on the international stage having been the fulcrum of the greatest French side in history. The success of the team between 1998 and 2006 was spearheaded and created by Zidane, the epitome of French flair on the pitch; the best description from his teammates -“In France, everybody realized that God exists, and that he is back in the French international team” (Thierry Henry). Prepare yourself for a barrage of examples, and if you don’t think they show a great international career, just give up.

In the 1998 World Cup final, Zidane was man of the match, player of the tournament, and scored twice. In Euro 2000, Zidane scored an exquisite freekick in the quarter final and the winning golden goal in the semi final, before being named player of the tournament again. Whilst injury prevented full participation in the 2002 World Cup, in Euro 2004 he saved his side in the opening match with a brace against England and they went on to reach the quarter finals. Finally, in the 2006 World Cup, Zidane scored goals in the last 16, semi final, and final, and was again named player of the tournament.

Leaving behind what can only be described as a breathtaking international career making him an icon throughout his nation, Zidane’s ability in the domestic game was equally entrancing. Zidane is rightly revered as a real Madrid legend, having signed for the world record fee of £42m before making 225 appearances for the club. As the face of the infamous Galacticos, Zidane showed his ability in the big games yet again with a spectacular goal in the 2001 Champions League final. The stunning volley with his wrong foot personified Zidane’s ability – a glorious piece of skill, based on phenomenal natural ability but crucially delivered on the biggest stage in club football.

On a small sidenote, another argument for Zidane’s status as the world’s best is his performances in different leagues. He won trophies in France, Italy and Spain – best known as the face of Madrid for six years, Zidane had before won World Player of the Year at Juventus alongside two Scudetto’s and two Champions League finals.

It is worth noting in the furore following Messi’s fourth straight Ballon D’or, (which Ronaldo should have won!), that Zidane not only won three World Player of the Year awards but has appeared on the shortlist more times than any other player (three wins, one second place, two third places). This signifies Zidane’s greatest quality – his consistent ability to perform in the biggest matches every year. Standing out amongst the best is what defined Zidane, crucially on the club and international level. This is the crux of my argument, what I have been sliding my way slowly towards, the final rationale – Zidane, unlike Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo or Messi, achieved the ultimate success on both the club and the international level.

His ability is comparable to the greats listed above, but his big game mentality sets him apart. There are numerous great strikers, who could be on this list, but Zidane was something else – the one player you wanted in the big game. That quality, that rarity, makes him special. If (like me), you value that natural gift, then it’s simple – Zizou simply was the greatest ever.

21 comments

  1. “Aside from this ability to dominate in big games, there is another string to my argument. Zidane was also the only player who has achieved the greatest success possible on both the club and national level, something that neither Messi, Ronaldo, Pele nor Maradona did.”

    I have to strongly, strongly dispute your assertion that Pele and Maradona did not achieve both club and international success. With Napoli, Maradona transformed them into a mediocre mid table team to a team that won two leagues, placed second twice and won the UEFA cup, which was a very big deal back then.

    Likewise with Pele, he achieved some extraordinary feats with Santos and this was back in the day when the Brazilian league was pretty much the best in the world. He won the Intercontinental Cup, numerous league titles and a few cups as well. That’s with a goalscoring record of over 1.5 per match for his first seven seasons there.

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  2. Pele played in the Brazilian league and the American simultaneously, at a time when the game was far less competitive at club level. Also, the Brazilian league being the strongest would be hotly disputed especially by the Italian and Spanish leagues, whose sides regularly showed they were the greatest of their generations.

    As for Maradona, he sparkled for Napoli certainly, but he didnt excel (by his international standards) for his other clubs, especially Barcelona. If Maradona had shown that ability for his entire club career, I would place him as possibly the greatest ever.

    Thanks for commenting.

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  3. it only affirms my belief that Zidane was and will be the greatest player of all time not because he won cups but because once in decades comes a man who plays a game so beautifully and so elegantly that you just cannot stop noticing. just like federer was and will be the most elegant player to have ever embraced a tennis court ever. The lavers, nadals, bjorgs etc deserve to be called legends but Fed is class apart, likewise Zidane is something different. There is no player today whose first touch is as silky as Zidane’s.
    Fed and Zidane’s game can be captured in this statement “Poetry in Motion”

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  4. The “greatest player” could mean different things to different people. To some it could be “most dangerous”, and hence Messi and Ronaldo could be the ones. To some it could mean the most skillful and hence Maradona. To me Zidane is the greatest because he was the “most complete player”.

    By “complete player”, I mean technical completeness-the ability to shoot with both feet, heading, passing, dribbling, control, volley. He had it all in the right proportion. He is a poster for anyone learning to play complete soccer.

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  5. @Jules

    Maradona did succeed at Barcelona. Won a Copa Del Rey and a Spanish Supercup with them as well as scoring more goals than anyone else during his time. He was plagued by injury during his time there as well as getting into unnecessary disputes with the board but that doesn’t lessen his achievements. At Boca Juniors, he lit up their side by all counts. During his peak years, he succeeded at every single club he went to. Perhaps even more so than Zidane.

    And Pele didn’t play the American and Brazilian leagues at the same time. There was 2 years between him leaving Santos and joining New York. And the Brazilian league had guys like Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Edu, Felix, Rivelino etc etc. This was a time before the majority of footballers left their clubs to go to Europe. You look at what Pele did and there is nothing more he could have done at the club than what he did.

    That Santos team of the early 1960′s was a great one in the same way Barcelona is today and Pele was the lynchpin behind that. For me, still the greatest ever player of all time with Maradona and Messi second and then Zidane.

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  6. I am glad to see that I am not the only who believes Zidane is the greatest player of all times. As one reader stated, Zidane’s game can be described as “Poetry In Motion”. No one who loves football can deny Zidane’s skills. His goals were magical, his ball control was breath-taking, and his passes were killer. As Ibrahimovic said, the other ten players suddenly improved when Zidane was there. Zizou won it all, done it all…he truly deserves to be called the greatest.

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  7. Zidane could make you fall in love with football. Period.

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  8. You can make the same arguments for Iniesta as for Zidane, e.g. big game player, ridiculously successful at both international and domestic level, brilliant touch and vision. What a player.

    Does that mean he is better than Messi, Maradona etc? No. The same with Zidane.

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  9. Zidane is beyond legend. No one can be compared to him, his style of play and inspiration on the pitch. Pele, Marado, Mess etc may have great acheivements but they are not in the same class with Zidane.

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  10. Zidane is king of world soccer

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  11. Good article Jules. I have always believed your arguments that big games make the player, and Zidane had more of them to fill multiple careers. His genius could also been seen through his absence I believe: in the 2002 World Cup he only played 1 of 3 games and was rushed back from injury for the third, and the number 1 ranked French National side didn’t get out of the group. In the 2008 Euro Cup, the same squad (minus Zidane this time) that had just been to the World Cup final didn’t get out of the group. In 2006, the French national squad were headed towards not even qualifying for the world cup and his return brought them not only that but a championship game appearance. Say what you will about Pele, but when he got injured in 1962, Brazil still handily won the World Cup.

    Just a side comment, your arguments are sound, Jules, but your research could use some beefing up. It has always been a misconception that Zidane was the player of the tournament in the 1998 world cup (I guess it’s because he scored the two big goals in the final). The player of the tournament was Ronaldo from Brazil. Zidane would have to wait until 2006 to be named best player of the world cup. No soccer player has ever won the award twice, making the debate of the ‘greatest ever’ just a little more complicated.

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  12. Yes, Zidane is the greatest of all time because he is’t from earth, but another Planet.

    @rohan john

    Who is federer ?? :)) Ugly can’t be elegant or elegance. This is truth, fact and just reality.

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  13. He is certainly the greatest. Its not even a contest if people paid more attention to what matters most- the ability to own the pitch in any tournament, any game, against any opponent.

    Zidane has scored winning goals in World Cup finals and UCL finals. Brilliant goals too!

    He RELISHED big games. He owned them.

    Its insane how much he did for France in the 2006 World Cup even though he was quite old at that point.

    Incredible, audacious player with no peers.

    Zizou forever, and Im not even French…

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  14. Zidane is by far the greatest player i have seen in my life.. in 1998, i was only 4 years old but i still remember zizou scoring 2 goals and he lifted the world cup.. before the final nobody knew him,, after the final everybody knew him.. i heard a lot of controversy theory about that final but never believed any of those rubbish.. in 2002, i saw a zidane-less France being humiliated by Senegal.. i always thought that had zizou played in that match, the results would’ve been different.. and then it came in 2006, against brazil again.. 34-year old zidane absolutely outclassed ronaldo,ronaldinho,kaka,cafu,carlos.. the way he controlled the midfield was simply supernatural.. he then created the greatest assist i’ve ever seen for henry to score.. in the final, zizou scored the most calmest penalty i’ve ever seen and france would’ve won if zizou didn’t get the red card.. all in all, it showed that zidane was the ultimate big game player..

    but still he is not the greatest ever.. that title belongs to a 5’5 stocky little man named MARADONA.. you said maradona didn’t achieve success in club and country, which is absolutely a lie.. Maradona SINGLE-HANDEDLY dragged argentina to 2 consecutive WC final, winning it in 86.. in his teenage years, he dragged argentinos juniors to their highest finish in the Argentine league(2nd place)..he single-handedly won the 1st youth world cup in 1979 and was the youngest player to win the south american player of the year award.. he then led boca juniors to their only league title in 1980s.. he couldn’t shine in barca because he was constantly deprived of playing regular matches and he also had a politcal clash with barca’s president.. despite that, he was consistently barca’s best player and he once scored 4 goals against madrid.. at napoli, maradona not only led them to trophies but he also became a fully-fledged footballing God.. before maradona, napoli were the sewer of italy.. At his absolute peak, Maradona was a phenomenon that nobody had ever seen.. his ball control was unparalled, his dribbling was transcendental, his passing was trademark, his vision was immaculate.. and he regularly humiliated some of the greatest defenders of all time like Maldini,baresi,gentile,tardelli,scirea.. Even zidane confessed that Maradona was the greatest ever..

    please don’t say about pele.. He never even comes close to maradona.. Pele’s only true peak came at 70 WC but it was nothing like maradona’s 86 WC.. in fact one could argue that his vastly underrated teammate,garrincha, was a better player.. in 1962 WC, pele didnot play but brazil won due to the genius of garrincha.. Pele played for the biggest club in brazil whereas maradona always played for underdogs and led them to miracles.. Pele was a good athlete, he ran very fast and headed the ball perfectly but his natural ball technique never comes close to maradona..

    Zidane impact for France is huge and possibly comes close to Maradona’s for argentina but maradona had an unbelievale 86 WC.. zidane was also huge for Madrid but again, Madrid and Juventus were powerhouses.. Maradona’s distinction from the rest is the fact that he ALWAYS played for underdogs and he ALWAYS took them to a level they never imagined they would reach..

    I was lucky to watch Zidane’s greatest moments.. but i was very unlucky indeed for being alive to see Maradona’s miracle.

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  15. *not alive

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  16. Awesome article.And dont forget that Zizou played in an era and in a league which probably had the toughest and best defenders of all time.and no one can ever replicate that volley against leverkusen in the champions league final.Zizou was just phenomenal.

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  17. Not trying to be mean, but saying Zidane performed at club and international level where Pele, Maradona and Messi didn’t is biased to say the least.

    Pele won 3 world cups and scored more goals domestically than pretty much any other player in history. You can say what you like about the Brazilian league, but back in his day most of the top Brazilians still played in that league and Santos on many occasions triumphed over Real Madrid whilst Pele was in the team.

    Messi you could make an argument for at international level, but he is arguably the greatest player to ever play the game for Barcelona excluding his international performances (which by the way aren’t bad at all, Argentina simply do not use him correctly), all at the grand age of 26.

    Maradona is simply exempt from the argument because you are completely wrong about him. He won the world cup almost single handedly for Argentina in 86, or was certainly just as vital as Zidane in 98. Then there is the fact that he took Napoli, at the time a relegation battling team in 83, to 2 Serie A titles in 87 and 90. They signed him in 1984 to be clear.

    Zidane is a great of the game, top 10, maybe even top 5 at a push, but the greatest? I don’t think even he would put a case for himself being the greatest ever. Fact is, Diego Maradona is still in a league of his own with Lionel Messi the next best.

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  18. Please allow me to tell a small story told by a french player (I’ve forgotten his name) on a french radio show, who was playing in the spanish league in the early 2000′s. He asked his partners who was the best player in the league, and all of them were answering Valeron (playing for the Deportivo from 2000 to 2013). Suprised by the answer, he asked : “but Zidane ???” No no no, answered the other players, Zidane doesn’t play in the same league as us :)

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  19. zidane is simply the best player ever in the history of football…..that is the fact….his touch only will drive maradona entire carrier to sleep…..FACT

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  20. Zidane is the best footballer player ever……revere him still…..

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  21. 26 Mar ’14 at 5:37 pm

    Hector Saldivar

    This is a great article you helped me alot.
    Thank You!!!

    Zidane Is A Legend!!

    Reply




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