Across what would have been Euro 2020, we are running a series on the players who defined each of the European Championships from 1972-2016 - and beyond that, left their imprint on modern football. Next up: Zinedine Zidane's masterpiece and France's ascension to the throne in Euro 2000.
Personality is such a vital part of the make-up of great footballers. For the creative forces, this often manifests itself in extravagant expressions of skill, a magnetic charisma, and an undeniable sense of theatre. That combination has provided a natural ‘It’ factor for some of the games’ greatest extroverts. Cristiano Ronaldo currently has it. Johann Cruyff had it. Diego Maradona didn’t just have it, he wrote the book on it.
But football is a game for introverts too, and few of such characters have ever exerted such an influence over the destination of the biggest prizes in the game than Zinedine Zidane. It took some coaxing from him; Zidane was certainly a prodigy, but he became one of football’s greatest late bloomers. As a tall and skinny midfielder from the tough Le Castellane estate in Marseille, the young Zidane also had to develop physically and mentally to succeed.
His touch, honed on the tight concrete spaces around his childhood home, was never in doubt. "Technically he was superb," said his team-mate Luis Fernandez from his first club, AS Cannes. "He had sublime skill, a superb touch and all the moves. On a technical level he was much more advanced than the rest of the team." It helped AS Cannes to qualify for the UEFA Cup in the 1991-92 season, though with that distraction and Zidane’s absence due to military service, they were eventually relegated. Marseille were the best club in France at the time but passed on the chance to sign him as they thought he was too slow. Bordeaux stepped in instead, and it was the making of Zidane.
Over the next four seasons he filled out in physique and self-belief and became the best player in France. In 1995-96 he was pivotal in Bordeaux’s epic run to the UEFA Cup final, which earned him a move to the European champions Juventus. At 22 Zidane had made his debut for the national side against the Czech Republic in August 1994. He was only an emergency call-up to the squad after Youri Djorkaeff pulled out yet came off the bench in Bordeaux to score two brilliant goals and salvage a 2-2 draw.
'A would-be Platini'
Zinedine Zidane during his first cap for France
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When Eric Cantona launched himself into the Selhurst Park crowd the following January and picked up an eight-month ban, French manager Aimé Jacquet rebuilt his team around Zidane instead. Yet his first appearance at the European Championship, in England in 1996, was a troubling experience. France reached the semi-finals, but Zidane was poor; Bordeaux’s draining European adventures and a pre-tournament car-crash meant Zidane was not physically or mentally right and he performed badly.
L’Équipe called the French team boring and questioned the quality of their current number 10 versus their legendary one. "He was dubbed a new Platini before Euro 96," they wrote. "He is at best a would-be Platini." The pressure to emulate France’s greatest ever player didn’t sit easily on Zidane’s shoulders, but Jacquet would not give up on his man. Two years later, he was repaid in full for his faith. France hosted the 1998 World Cup and made it all the way to the final where they hammered Brazil 3-0 in Paris. Zidane was the architect of the victory and scored two headed goals in the first half. When a million Parisians descended on the Champs-Elysees that night to celebrate, Zidane’s image was projected onto the façade of the Arc de Triomphe.
Earlier in the tournament, he had nearly been the architect of his own disaster. In a group match with Saudi Arabia, an ugly stamp from Zidane on Fuad Anwar saw Zidane become the first French player to receive a red card at the World Cup. It was one of 14 he would receive in his career. Behind his quiet and usually placid demeanour lay a volcanic temper that could erupt at any moment. Zidane missed the next two matches and was only available again from the quarter-finals onwards. Nothing, though, could take the shine off the victory. Certainly not Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National and critical of the multi-ethnic backgrounds represented in the French squad during the tournament. Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants and fiercely proud of it, became a symbol of a France that rejected such divisive and reactionary thinking.
In 2000, Zidane had the chance to sort out his unfinished business with the European Championship. It was co-hosted for the first time, between Belgium and the Netherlands, and would prove to be unforgettable. The only bug present in the first year of the new millennium was the tournament you just couldn’t get enough of.
The most perfect version imaginable
Zinedine Zidane jokes with Thierry Henry
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Discounting the four-team Euros of 1960-1976, when only four matches were played, it produced the highest number of goals per game in the history of the tournament. The winds of influence in football were blowing in favour of attacking football, given direction by a number of positive rule changes through the nineties, and the teams took flight accordingly. Euro 2000 felt celebratory, almost a last hurrah for free-flowing football before teams began to pack their midfields and play lone strikers.
The cream of Europe’s attacking footballers arrived bang in form. Rui Costa and Luís Figo would be outstanding for Portugal, as would Raúl for Spain, Francesco Totti for Italy, and Patrick Kluivert for the Netherlands. Head and shoulders above them all was Zidane, who spent the summer in a zone of zen-like serenity. This was no would-be Platini; he would be Zidane, and the most perfect version imaginable. At Euro 2000, he located the slither of the Venn diagram where the peak of his self-belief met the full extent of his self-expression.
Zidane was to the fore as France won their opening two matches. Denmark were eviscerated 3-0 in Bruges, before goals from Thierry Henry and Djorkaeff in the same stadium five days later saw off the Czech Republic 2-1. The world champions were so confident that their new manager, Roger Lemerre, decided to play his squad players for the group decider against the Netherlands in Amsterdam. It was a fantastic game, which the Dutch just about won 3-2. That sent France back to Bruges for a quarter-final against Spain, whose 4-3 victory over Yugoslavia to make the last eight was one of the greatest games in European Championship history.
With their full team back in action France began strongly. Zidane put them ahead by fizzing a glorious free kick over the Spanish wall and into the top corner in the 32nd minute, before Gaizka Mendieta equalised with a wonderfully calm penalty kick six minutes later. A thumping hit from Djorkaeff restored the French lead just before half-time. France held it until the very last minute when they conceded another penalty. Mendieta had been substituted so Raúl took the kick but blazed it high over the bar. France were through, but far from done with jaw-dropping late twists in games.
Their semi-final against Portugal would be a historical echo of their famous victory over the same opponents at the same stage in Marseille in 1984, when France went on to win their home tournament. As with the game sixteen years previously, it was an emotional and intense game between two energetic sides; and it would also be given a dramatic denouement in extra-time by France’s totemic number 10.
Out of this world
France's fans make their feelings clear at Euro 2000
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Throughout Euro 2000, Zidane played with a grace and control that was almost balletic. For someone with a six-foot one frame and solid upper body, his balance and footwork when manoeuvring the ball out of phone-box size spaces between defenders was extraordinary. The semi-final in Brussels saw him go through the full repertoire of turns, touches, flicks and changes of direction. "Sometimes when he plays with the ball it seems like he’s dancing," said Thierry Henry. Zidane, all fully grown, was having a disco at Euro 2000.
As impressive as his skill was the effortlessness nature in which he could glide through the midfield. When most people run with a football it’s not completely smooth; their movement is punctuated by the touches of boot to ball, causing little adjustments in stride and speed. Zidane had such natural rhythm when he moved forwards with the ball that it seemed it wasn’t even there. In one gorgeous run where he whooshed past four players and almost released Patrick Vieira on goal, Zidane resembled a speedskater more than a footballer.
A thumping strike from the edge of the area by Nuno Gomes put Portugal ahead in the first half, later cancelled out by a smart swivel and shot from Henry in the second. Both sides traded chances throughout normal time and deep into both periods of Golden Goal extra-time. With just three minutes to go in an increasingly stretched game, a shot from Sylvain Wiltord hit the hand of Portuguese defender Abel Xavier on its way to goal and France had a penalty.
Zidane had to wait an age to take it, as the Portuguese protests raged for three full minutes. Figo, who would go on to win the Ballon d’Or ahead of Zidane later in the year, took his shirt off and walked off the pitch in disgust. The award of the penalty was fair, but deep down Figo knew the jig was up. As Alex Ferguson later noted of this penalty, the greats always make certain. Zidane dispatched a nerveless penalty into the top corner and wheeled away to celebrate France’s advancement to the final.
At that point, a rematch with the hosts looked likely, until the Netherlands blew up spectacularly in their semi-final with Italy in Amsterdam. The Dutch had a disastrous record with penalties through the nineties and found a new nadir in their home tournament. With Italy reduced to ten men from the 34th minute onwards, they managed to miss two penalties in normal time and then three in the shootout, as Italy advanced 3-1 on penalty kicks after 120 goalless minutes. It was the fourth time they had gone out on penalties in their last five tournaments.
Zinedine Zidane gets his hands on the Henri Delaunay trophy
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Italy were undeniably resilient and had not conceded a goal in the knockout stages. They also had enough firepower to give France serious problems. Manchester United’s captain Roy Keane fancied their chances so much that he bet £5,000 on them winning the final. His gut instincts initially looked correct; Italy absorbed what France threw at them before taking the lead with a smart finish by Marco Delvecchio in the 55th minute.
It was a desperate situation for France. As they chased the game, Italy hit them on the counter. Alessandro del Piero missed two glorious chances to put the game out of sight as the final whistle approached. For the first time in the tournament, Zidane was peripheral; involved, but not able to reverse the flow of a final Italy looked increasingly certain to win. Lemerre made three attacking changes by sending on Wiltord, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, but they couldn’t break through. With almost three minutes of injury time played, the Italian bench had all come to stand by the touchline ready to pour onto the pitch at the final whistle.
Then a loose high ball broke to Wiltord in the Italian area. He hit a low shot with his left foot that went through the dive of Italy’s goalkeeper Francesco Toldo and into the far corner to bring the game level. Incredibly, France had a late reprieve for the third match in a row. It was a hideous moment for Toldo, who had been Italy’s hero against the Dutch. While he was processing that disappointment in the first period of extra time, France took the game away from the deflated Italians. In the 103rd minute Pires went past Demetrio Albertini and Fabio Cannavaro on the left and cut the ball back to the centre of the Italian area, where Trezeguet smashed the ball first time into the roof of the net. It was the golden goal that made France the European champions for the second time.
Lemerre’s squad were also the first back-to-back winners of the European Championship and World Cup since the West Germany team of 1972-74. It was fitting that his substitutions had helped to land a continental title in which he’d maximised the use of a squad rich in quality. As deep as that pool was, there was no denying that one of his players had damn near walked on it to guide the team to victory. “For me, Euro 2000 will always be Zidane’s peak,” said L’Équipe journalist Vincent Duluc in Football’s Greatest. “In 2000 he was the leader of the national team, one of the best players in the world, and he handled the pressure. He scored important goals and took the team to new heights. For me that remains the most beautiful summer of Zidane’s career.”
Glory and infamy
Zinedine Zidane leads the celebrations
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Zidane was named Player of the Tournament and won the FIFA World Player of the Year award for the second time in 2000, later claiming the hat-trick in 2003. In 2001 Real Madrid paid a world record transfer fee of £45 million to recruit Zidane from Juventus as part of their Galactico project. One year later in Glasgow, Zidane was again pivotal on the biggest stage as he secured the third of his great international triumphs. A stunning left-footed volley of a ball dropping high out of the night sky sealed a 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen and the Champions League title for Madrid.
At the World Cup in Japan and South Korea a few weeks later, a pre-tournament hamstring injury limited Zidane to just one ineffective appearance as France crashed out in the group stages. He was fully fit for Euro 2004 in Portugal, where he broke England’s hearts with two injury-time goals to secure an unlikely victory in the group stages. France then suffered another shock elimination in the quarter-finals, beaten 1-0 by Greece, and the now 32-year old Zidane retired from international football. He would eventually return for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, for a Last Dance to rival Michael Jordan’s final year with the Chicago Bulls.
They would be Zidane’s final matches ahead of his complete retirement from the game. Initially, it looked like his career would peter out; France struggled in the group stages, and sections of the Spanish press promised to retire him when the teams met in the second round. Instead, Zidane put Spain to bed, scoring a superb late goal as France won 3-1. He backed this up with a virtuoso display as France beat Brazil 1-0 in the quarter-final, and then broke Portuguese hearts again by converting a penalty to win their semi-final by the same margin.
In the final against Italy, Zidane scored a Panenka penalty past Gigi Buffon after 7 minutes and was sent off for headbutting Marco Materrazzi with ten minutes to go in extra-time. He trudged off past the World Cup trophy with barely a glance at it, and Italy went on to avenge Euro 2000 by winning on penalties. Even then Zidane was still awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. For a renowned introvert it was an almost ostentatiously dramatic final turn.
But that was Zidane – proud, brooding, tempestuous, shocking, and brilliant. He is one of the most fascinatingly complex stars ever to grace the game. That such an obviously shy character has achieved phenomenal success as a manager at Real Madrid in recent years only adds a further layer of intrigue. One thing that is unquestionable about Zidane is his rightful place in the pantheon of the great players. That status was cemented by his performances at Euro 2000, when he floated majestically across the lowlands of Belgium and the Netherlands.
On Friday, we take a look at Wayne Rooney's spectacular Euro 2004 with England...