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Monday, July 10, 2006

The Cult of Zidane

OK, let's get this out of the way: Zinedine Zidane is a legend. He's perhaps the greatest player since Diego Maradona. The guy has won the World Cup and European Championship with France. He's led Real Madrid to the Champion's League and La Liga title. He's a three-time world player of the year.

That being said, hasn't the Zidane worship during this World Cup gone far enough? I understand that journalists and television commentators need stories and hooks to draw an audience, but the Zidane lovefest spun out of control. Was it a great story that France's veterans made one last run to the World Cup final? Absolutely. Did Zidane play a key role in that? You bet. But what has been forgotten in the hoopla is the fact that for at least half of his World Cup matches, Zidane looked past his prime and average. He made a colossal error of judgment in the final that may have doomed his team. Yet the worshipful football media nevertheless awarded Zidane with the Golden Ball for most outstanding player at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. In a word: Huh? Let's look at his performances.

First of all, Zidane scored 3 goals. Only 1 goal was in the run of play. The other 2 were penalty kicks that had been earned by other players. He also assisted Thierry Henry's goal against Brazil--but let's face it: Henry was unmarked and the story of that goal was Henry's sensational volley finish. But starting from the beginning, Zidane looks old and average in two dour draws against Switzerland and the Korean Republic. He gets two yellow cards and misses the Togo match. That's when Patrick Vieira and Henry lead France to the victory that starts the momentum they rode all the way to the final--momemtum that starts without Zidane on the field. Now, it's indisputable that Zidane had a very good game against Spain, including a nice goal to seal it. His abiilty to slow the pace actually worked to France's advantage for a change against the fast-paced and young Spaniards. Zidane followed that up with a great game against Brazil. It was vintage Zidane, controlling the midfield. But let's not forget the importance of Makelele and Vieira, whose physical play exposed Brazil's soft, underachieving midfield and allowed Zidane to do his thing. This Brazil proved to be a great collection of individuals who were melded into an average team. Zidane was OK but not dominant against Portugal. Yes, he converted a penalty earned by Henry. But he didn't do anything extraordinary in the match.

This brings us to the World Cup final. France once again are awarded a penalty kick after Malouda essentially dives. Zidane steps up and attempts a bold (foolish?) chip shot that draws iron and fortuitously bounces in for a goal. Other players have been criticized for attempting such a kick, but when Zidane does it, it's cheeky and bold. Otherwise, the Italian midfield had their way with him. They kept up with him and stripped him of possession several times. Zidane's inability to break through on his own talent led him to take several dives in a desperate effort to get a free kick. Did anybody hear criticism of his dives? I sure didn't. His best moment of the entire match was his searing, extra-time header that Buffon brilliantly saved. France was dominating possession and looked the more likely to break the deadlock when Zidane famously lost his head, er, planted it in the chest of Marco Materazzi. France's momentum was stymied, Italy was able to hold on until penalty kicks, and the rest is history. It is being alleged that Materazzi said something very offensive to Zidane, though nobody but the two players involved knows what it was. Regardless, Zidane's loss of poise is inexcusable and he very well may have cost France the World Cup. Sorry, no Golden Ball here.

Who deserved it more? Without question, Italian defender and captain Fabio Cannavaro did. He had a dominant, spectacular Cup. Italy gave up two goals the entire tournament--an own goal and a penalty from a dive. He was more consistent than Zidane, but his failure was not that he was a defender. It was that he was not Zidane. The legend and the man were hopelessly mixed in the breathless, salivating, derriere-smooching coverage this entire Cup. I'm almost ready to say that even Henry had a better Cup. He's a better player than Zidane is NOW, but due to the legendary status and political power of Zidane he was forced to adapt his game to Zidane rather than vice versa. Oh, another Golden Ball candidate? How about Miroslav Klose, who scored five goals for Germany and looked solid throughout the tournament? What about Italy's Andrea Pirlo, who had a great tournament and was Man of the Match in the final? Great performances, but it should have gone to Cannavaro. By the way, the Golden Ball is awarded by media vote. These are the very ones who lionize every movement by the great Zidane while overlooking his other pedestrian moments. It's ridiculous, really.

Zidane has received some criticism for his vicious headbutt and shameful departure from the World Cup final, but look for the Zidane-loving media to focus now on what provoked him. It's an interesting and perhaps important question, but it never will excuse his actions. There is also no excuse for the Cult of Zidane so rampant in the soccer media establishment. Perhaps we need to remember the words of Zidane's own agent: He is a human being, not a god.

P.S. Zidane has received 14 red cards in his career, including one in the 1998 World Cup when he stomped on Saudi Arabia captain Fuad Amin.

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