There is a thing about great stories: they contain intensely personal moments that anyone can deem their own, and form a representation of the full work; a thumbnail, if you like. A novel condensed into a monologue, the world reflected in an inverted dewdrop. A souvenir we can carry along in our heads, taking it to mean the ideal for something we cherish.
And from this epic performance by Zinedine Zidane against a monstrously talented Brazil (a team that could easily cost $1 billion by 2022 standards), I chose a tiny trinket to treasure for myself.
It came between the endless barrage France had to withstand as Brazil tried to force an equalizer. The rare few seconds of possession in the opposition half, with the Brazil defense well in position, meant that no counter was possible.
Zidane had the ball, and while maneuvering to keep it, he signals his right-back to occupy the vacant attacking position on the flank. Willy Sagnol obliges and receives an inch-perfect pass.
It is that signal that sticks most, more than anything that had gone by so far. Not the little flick to Eric Abidal that sent the ever-galloping Cafu back-tracking, or the ‘flick and header’ over Ronaldo(you know which one). Not even that most elegant of overtures — full of his trademark pirouettes and dribbles — as good as any Spielberg opening.
The Brazilians knew where the pass was going and yet no one could do anything about it. Fouling him would lead to another fatal free-kick and pushing the defenders up would leave a high line exposed. Even though the respect shown to him earlier was waning as the clock pressed on, he had the ball right now and they would just have to wait.
It is hard to gauge how he played like that, but it wasn’t just the skill. He was surely skillful, but his opposition fielded Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Juninho. And France’s best marksman was already playing alongside him. Yet it was Zidane’s match, and he was able to stand above everybody in the game. It must be his elegance? Of course, what else could it be! There is greatness in elegance yes, but if it was just that then David Gower and Mesut Ozil would be placed at par with Viv Richards and Andres Iniesta. What then, makes me(and a many others) think of this match when so much else needs thought?
I am a sucker for certainty. Born in a land of a uncertainties, I can’t help but feel elated when once in a while an event appears preordained. When football seems ridden with misplaced passes, scuffed finishes, and flicked-on headers, the sight of a perfectly curved free kick leading to a clean volleyed finish is quietly comforting.
Being the epitome of dead-eyed certainty coupled with an effortlessness beyond words(or at-least beyond cliches) made him in my eyes, Great. No uninspired back-passes or over-ambitious attempts to dribble, just those long spindly legs moving in a sublime manner, deceiving defenders by deft touches and sometimes with just a look to deliver the surest rendition of a chorus for all of France, from an otherwise reticent person.
He also managed to tick off the final blank space on his CV with one last jewel, assisting Henry for the only goal of the match; something he’s never done in the 56 other matches they played together.
Having retired after Euro 2004, he could have stayed home for this tournament and still be referred as one of the MVPs of football. But he came back; this introverted, brooding, monk-bald captain of France. Like the conductor of a grand orchestra, he rallied his ageing mates one last time to perform an encore of all their old hits in that esteemed company — 16 of whom had already won the World Cup at least once and included a total of 14 Ballon d’or and FIFA Best Player winners — the closest we shall ever come to footballing Olympus, especially given the recent trend of Champions crashing out in the next WC group stages.
Most of the talk before that match was about this could be the last match of his glorious career. What it ended up being was the end of the latest of Brazil’s golden generations. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Dida never played for Brazil again in a World Cup, and Kaka couldn’t guide them to glory in South Africa. In that aspect it reminds me of another match. That of an another epic encounter at Centurion Park in South Africa between two subcontinental neighbors in the 2003 Cricket World Cup.
A limited team with a shaky track-record so far was up against giants of that game, while their focal point, their maestro, had seemingly seen his better times in the rear view mirror. Like Brazil-France, before the match anything could have happened. At the end, only one thing did. Those dead-certain eyes held court and the giants had to bow to that man’s majesty. Similarly with few other opportune days when feeble mortals wrote themselves into the annals of sport. Sachin of Centurion, Lara of Bridgetown, Laxman of Kolkata, Keane of Turin aren’t mere markers in time. They are instances when an individual rose over towering opposition, without words or intimidation. These weren’t live-to-fight-another-day kind of wins; they are stamps against odds, fate, and logic; against the might of machines. It is the stuff that makes old men believe in the past as a real thing.
And it was real then, after that signal, that pass, that goal, that match. France faced Portugal in the semis, and then Italy in Berlin. Whatever happened in THAT match is consigned to history, but it was all the doing of that one man, one who wouldn’t let anyone else write his stories. He was certain they couldn’t lose while he was there. That belief is contagious, quite apparently; it rubs off on journeymen teammates and idle teenagers watching grainy telecasts 5000 miles away.
And we do believe, silly us. We let ourselves believe that though we may not yet have the skills, but if time comes, do possess the temperament to hold the world accountable, and pass judgment while it watches in awe. That we at all times retain the temper of that one Sunday morning in the field when we dribbled past a couple of defenders, and if called upon could conjure up a spell of magic, create symphonies out of scraps, make volcanoes come to knees and calm the rudest tempests.
A long time after Zidane stopped dazzling us with footwork and audacity, he was back broadcasting that belief from the touchline. In the half time footage from the UCL 2017 final, you can hear it too, that if they kept up the aggression and kept on doing the things he was saying, they’d get the goal. And when that Real Madrid got one goal, they usually got another. Also, it turns out to be a scary thing for opponents when talented players play with the conviction that they are destined to win.
More than anything, that was his legacy in the Real dugout. Not that he was a bad tactician, but when all the arithmetic and planning is done against a well matched opponent in a knockout game, this belief is what makes the difference, apparently.
That belief turned out to be the undoing of France in the final; his sending off might as well have been the declaration of the result. None of the goalkeepers had to do anything; neither of them saved anything anyway. It was just that reason and effort and odds came back in play, and belief walked past the golden trophy without even looking at it.
It is often deeply, irresistibly satisfying to see something so authentically true to its myth, to its history and its place. It was like that in Berlin; the feet, the temper, and the headers(missed and unmissed attempts); his doing and his undoing, his full circle was on display in those 2 hours. But rather than remember that game as the thumbnail for his career, I choose the one against Brazil. For me it remains the purest distillation of his later-day genius. On that night he could juggle while the world watched, and there was no one who could have taken the match away from him, as much as the Brazilians tried.
There’s one more fact about great stories: we keep going back to them.
Epilogue: I wrote this article on the eve of the 2018 final, wishing that Modric would take heed and channel his inner Zidane. He did, but the wrong kind, and lost the final. I write this again, when he is set to face Messi in the semis of the 2022.
Memorable encounters legitimize the venue where they take place, and I don’t wish that to happen to this world cup. I want to forget it ever happened, but it’s the players’ lives and their chance to claim those scant pages in history books. Something people like me will never have. So play on. Lets see which № 10 emulates the maestro best, and which aspect of his.