Italian football is a place where players can come of age. When you think of players that have developed their game in Italy, and later gone on to become greats, you think of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo and Kaka, or in more recent times, Paul Pogba. But the player that captures the imagination the most is Zinedine Zidane.
On 19 March 1996, Zidane was part of a Bordeaux team that found themselves 2-0 down against AC Milan in the quarter-final second leg of the UEFA Cup. “Zizou” burst onto the scene in this match, as his side knocked the Rossoneri out of the competition, winning 3-0 on the night. Zidane overran and dominated a midfield containing compatriots Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira, as well as Robert Donadoni. A certain Michel Platini was particularly impressed with the then-23-year-old and advised his former employer, Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli, to sign his countryman.
After watching Zidane’s stellar performance against Milan, Agnelli took Platini’s advice on board, and the Bordeaux man was signed at the end of the season for just £3 million. The new Juventus player would join arguably the greatest league in the world at the time. However, as great as things looked for Zidane, it took him a few months to settle in at his new club, as he wasn’t initially able to dictate matches like he had done at Bordeaux. This was understandable—at that early stage, the Frenchman was not the star of the team and he had just joined one of the most competitive and intense leagues in Europe.
One of the games Zidane won’t remember in a hurry is the 1997 Champions League Final against Borussia Dortmund. The German side dominated Juventus, something that was emphatically proven by the scoreboard with a 3-1 win. Zidane couldn’t make an appreciable impact on the game, and was, famously, effectively man-marked by Paul Lambert. Despite this set-back, the club still had a historic season, winning the Scudetto, Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup.
In his second campaign with Juve, Zidane became one of the stars of the league. He bulked up physically and completely adjusted to football in Italy. The Frenchman played behind Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi, two strikers that combined to score 61 goals in all competitions that season. The signing of Edgar Davids to reinforce the midfield area also gave Zidane greater freedom to roam. The attacking midfielder would begin to thrive, scoring goals from long range, whilst also making runs from midfield to ensure he was in the right place at the right time. In addition, his first touch was beguiling and his ability to dictate the pace of the game and beat players with ease was what ultimately won Zizou the Ballon D’Or in 1998.
The combination of these great attributes was what made Zidane arguably the most complete midfielder in the game at the time. Juventus would win a milestone 25th league title despite the frustration of losing back to back Champions League finals, this time to Real Madrid. Zidane got over that disappointment quickly, winning the World Cup with France in his own country, scoring two vital goals against Brazil in the final.
The following season, however, would be a huge disappointment for The Old Lady. Del Piero would miss the majority of the season through injury, and Lippi left Juventus to join Inter with Carlo Ancelotti replacing him. Ancelotti could only guide Juve to seventh place in Serie A, and Manchester United knocking out the Italians from the Champions League all but confirmed a trophy-less season for the club. Zidane became frustrated, desperate as he was for his first European Cup title, and knew his team wouldn’t be in the competition next season.
Ancelotti elected to keep with Juventus’ traditional 4-3-1-2 formation rather than switching to 4-4-2 primarily because it suited Zidane, who had also excelled in this role under Lippi, under whom he also operated behind the two strikers.
Despite underwhelming team displays at club level, Zidane would win his second major trophy with France, this time the 2000 European Championships in the Netherlands. A stunning free kick against Spain in the quarter-finals and a golden goal against Portugal in the semi-finals were his major contributions as France progressed to meet who else but Italy in the final. Lilian Thuram’s injury time equaliser and David Trezeguet’s golden goal secured Les Blues the trophy, and Zizou received the Player of the Tournament from UEFA.
In what would be his final season for Juventus, Zidane would once again be left disappointed as his team failed to win any silverware. The club suffered an early exit in the Champions League in the first group stages, and this was piled on with heartbreak in the league as the club fell just short of winning the Scudetto.
Ancelotti’s side were 2-0 up against eventual champions Roma in just the first six minutes of a crucial match in round 29. Zidane assisted Del Piero for the opening goal and then the scored his team’s second goal. However, the Giallorossi responded strongly as they made it 2-1 with ten minutes to go. Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar made a crucial error in the dying minutes as Vincenzo Montella’s goal earned Roma a point that would be decisive in the title race with just five games to be played. This disappointing season saw the end of Ancelotti’s tenure at Juventus, and Zidane would search for a new challenge.
Real Madrid bought Zidane for £62m, a world record transfer fee as the Spanish side looked to form ‘Los Galacticos’ with players like Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and Raul. The younger generation will remember Zidane more at Real Madrid but it was at the Turin club where he truly developed as a player, where he was telepathic in the sense that he had great chemistry with his teammates. In his prime, he was the main piece of the Juventus puzzle. Indeed, it was at this historic club, a legend in football evolved.
Words by Ben King @BenKing96
Ben King is a sports journalism student. As well as The Gentleman Ultra, he writes for Boston Blabber and Vavel USA.