It’s 15th May 2002. An overcast and rainy night in moody Glasgow. Unfortunately I’m not at Hampden Park; I’m 150 miles south and sat at home, watching on as Bayer Leverkusen are drawing 1-1 with Real Madrid in the Champions League Final. Alongside that summer’s World Cup in Korea and Japan, a fairly bleak black, red and white Boro away shirt and a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal’s invincibles in an FA Cup semi-final, it’s one of my first memories of watching football. And when I think about it, probably life itself.
As a mid-90s born child, I’ve only ever know European club football in the form of the glitzy, black and white starred Champions League. The theme song, the Mastercard sponsorship, the Tuesday nights on ITV. An era pretty much defined by Real Madrid’s Galacticos, deadly long haired strikers and tricky white boot, sweatband wearing wingers.
That year’s final had pitted together the attacking and free flowing underdogs of Bayer Leverkusen against the Galactico beginnings of Real Madrid; the latter featuring a mix of predominantly big money Spanish buys and international stars such as Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane.
On the opposite side of things—corporate pharmaceutical influence aside—Leverkusen were the hipster’s club of choice. Or certainly would have been if such a thing existed back then. Their squad consisted of a plethora of unique talents that would soon go onto bigger and better things at both club and international level. The spine alone consisted of galloping long-shot centre half Lucio, complete midfield maestro and all round bastard, Michael Ballack, tricky 5′ 6″ number 10 Yildiray Bastürk and awkward goal machine, Oliver Neuville. Add to that a youthful Dimitar Berbatov on the bench and you can soon begin to imagine why the North Rhine-Westphalia club won the hearts and minds of Europe’s savvy supporters.
Back to Scotland’s second city and the game was evenly poised at 1-1 on the stroke of half time. Following an opening goal from predatory poacher Raul and a bullet header reply from the aforementioned Lucio, the game looked to be petering towards a stalemate with the second half approaching. However, one 29-year-old from Marseille had other ideas.
A signature bomb down the left flank saw Bobbie Carlos get on the end of a chipped through ball. The Brazilian sticks a hopeful and looping first time ball onto the edge of the box, where a thinly haired Frenchman in a Los Blancos shirt and somewhat bizarre military-inspired number 5 stands motionless—just waiting and watching with a fixated gaze. Time freezes. The iconic geometric adidas Finale takes longer than Shaun Ryder to come down. It’s out the camera shot for an age. It’s got actual Glaswegian snow on it. You see him opening up his body. Setting himself to swivel and shoot. He’s not going to is he? Surely not? Oh my god. He has. And with that one sweet left-footed volley, European football changed forever.
It was almost as if the ball had been caught perfectly on the gripped instep of those black, red and white Predator Manias. And of course it was THOSE boots. It was probably adidas’ best ever marketing campaign without paying a single penny to any Berlin-based ad agency or think tank. It was just down to one man and his incredible talent. It wasn’t even the attention seeking, champagne version of the same boot worn by Beckham. This was Zidane. This was understated and effortless class that let the football do the talking.
As soon as it hits the back of the almost invisible black net, the camera pans to a wry smiling Zidane. For probably the first time in his life, he looks briefly surprised by what he’s done. Even the Bayer players react in disbelief. Brazilian Lucio throws his hand in the air. The keeper still doesn’t know what’s happened. The lad’s somehow spun 180° in mid-air and still doesn’t have a clue what’s gone on.
At that age I never knew a footballer could create such a special moment with simply a gracious swing of a foot. Up until then, my experience of watching football had been limited to a handful of unmemorable visits to the Riverside to see players like Jonathan Greening boot the ball miles and their opponent even further. This from Zidane may as well have been taking place on a different planet. It was a moment where everything just stopped and even watching the second or third replay, it still didn’t sink in just quite what had happened.
Most players would be happy taking a reasonably tidy touch on their so-called ‘weaker’ foot. Few would even think about doing remotely anything with it first time. But this was Zidane’s Illimatic. A product of the Algerian-Frenchman’s environment; typical of his playground ethic and Marseille State of Mind. Born out of the tough inner city streets of Southern France’s largest port city, developed on the plazas of La Castellane, before being fine-tuned in the academy of AS Cannes and clubs of Bordeaux and Juventus.
This was schoolboy innocence and raw talent at its best. Something no player in the world had the right to do. Confidence and belief entwined with outrageous technique, ability and elegance.
It was one of the greatest goals by one of the greatest players ever; on the big stage and in front of the world’s audience.
It was a goal fitting to win any game, and so it would as the tie remained 2-1—with Zizou’s goal handing Real Madrid their ninth European Cup and criminally just his solo win as a player. That was put right when he turned his hand to managing; taking the Madrid club to an incredible three consecutive Champions League wins in his first three seasons in management.
And while the Galactico experiment of the 2000s failed to deliver the trophies expected for its ludicrous outlay, Zidane continued to be amongst the world’s greatest for the next four years before retiring at the age of 34. In truth he could’ve played forever; but bowing out in the world’s biggest game, albeit in the most dramatic of fashions, was again a statement of the great man’s environment, attitude and persona.
That was Zidane; perfectly imperfect and one of the greatest we’ll ever seen.
Image credits: Planet Football, Calcio Romantico, Getty Images, FourFourTwo, TheJournal.IE.