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The Rise of Zizou: Tracing Zinedine Zidane’s Career at Les Bleus

Baguettes, bérets, and Zizou. Few things are more quintessentially French than the mercurial genius who hypnotized Les Bleus fans for more than ten years.

There has always been a sense of magnetism about Zinedine Zidane that makes him stand apart. As a coach, he quickly ascended to elite status by earning numerous titles with Los Blancos in a short time. As a player, he was a reference point for his contemporaries and later generations of footballers. Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes, who himself was as truly clever as a fox on the pitch, believed Zizou was “a sublime performer,” and once he went on to say, “To see him in action was to witness poetry in motion.” The Frenchman’s talent consistently drew praise from notable figures of the game.

Zidane’s career saw him wear the jerseys of giant clubs like Real Madrid and Juventus and become the fan favorite in both kingdoms. Yet more than anywhere else, football fans remember Zidane’s playing time at the French national team. And it is no surprise, as the first World Cup won by France coincided with Zizou’s rise as a national icon. Tracing the crucial moments of his career at Les Bleus can bring nostalgic football memories into mind once more.

Zidane’s Defining Moments in the France Jersey

Photo via FIFA.com

Zizou’s career at the French national team lasted over twelve years, from his debut to the 2006 FIFA World Cup final match against Italy.

A Perfect Debut: The Road to Euro 96

On August 17, 1994, Zidane made his debut for the Blues against the Czech Republic. Aimé Jacquet, whose team was 2-0 behind against the Czechs, brought the 22-year-old into the game in the 63rd minute. Zidane, wearing number 14, entered the field, replacing Corentin Martins, who was wearing number 10 at the time. This very exact moment is surely among the most crucial ones in French football history.

Photo via Getty Images

With just 5 minutes left in the game, Zidane received the ball in the center of the field from Laurent Blanc. After a magnificent dribble, he scored the first goal for France with a powerful left-footed shot from outside the penalty area. Two minutes later, Zidane scored his second goal with a header to level the score at 2-2. The match ended in a draw, making it a perfect debut for Zidane. Aimé Jacquet was satisfied with the comeback, but what delighted him more, was the emergence of a potential star. At that moment, Zinedine Zidane perhaps didn’t know that he was about to make history in French football. He dedicated his goals to his wife after the game and said he never thought he would score 2 goals in a single match.

Euro 96

After Eric Cantona faced a long suspension due to attacking a fan in January 1995, Zinedine Zidane took on the role of playmaker for Les Bleus. It was in the Euro 96 qualifiers that he wore France’s number 10 jersey for the first time and scored in the match against Azerbaijan. Then, in the decisive match against Romania, Zidane scored France’s third goal to secure a 3-1 victory and qualification for Euro 96. Zizou took center stage for France and he was the one to watch for spectators.

Zidane, who had been in a car accident a few days before the opening match of the Euro 96 competition, had a normal tournament. He helped France advance as the top team from their group. In the quarterfinals against the Netherlands and the semifinals against the Czech Republic, both of which ended in 0-0 draws, he converted his team’s first penalty kicks. France wasn’t as fortunate against the Czech Republic as they were against the Netherlands, missing out on reaching the final. Zizou, who had gained fame with Bordeaux, joined Juventus after Euro 96 to establish himself as one of the best players in the world.

Becoming the best in the world

Photo via Reuters

Before the tournament began, Zidane was one of the superstars everyone expected him to shine on home soil. In fact, after Ronaldo, he was the one in the spotlight. Zizou had won Serie A twice in a row with Juventus and had been the runner-up in the UEFA Champions League, being at the peak of his career. In the previous year’s individual awards, he had placed third both in the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year rankings.

The 1998 World Cup was somewhat of a competition between Zidane and Ronaldo. The French star, who had defeated Ronaldo’s Inter with Juventus in Serie A, wanted to replicate this success on the international stage and this time, top the individual awards as well. What happened next unfolded in a completely dramatic manner.

Road to the Final

France’s first game was in Zidane’s hometown of Marseille against South Africa. In this match, Zidane provided the assist for the first goal to Christophe Dugarry and France eventually defeated their opponents 3-0. In the second match against Saudi Arabia, Zidane, who had shown a good performance, was sent off for a foul on Fuad Anwar. He missed the third group stage match against Denmark and the round of 16 match against Paraguay, facing considerable criticism, especially since France struggled against Paraguay and narrowly advanced with Laurent Blanc’s golden goal in the final minutes.

Zidane returned to the French lineup in the quarterfinal against Italy and put on a good display. The tactical match between Aimé Jacquet and Cesare Maldini didn’t have a winner in 120 minutes and it went to penalties. Zizou converted France’s first penalty into a goal, and Les Bleus defeated Italy 4-3 on penalties, advancing to the semifinals. Their opponent in this stage was the surprise team of the tournament, Croatia. After falling behind 1-0, France turned the result around with two goals from Lilian Thuram and made it to the final. Despite playing a role in both goals, Zidane had yet to score in this tournament and meet expectations.

The Best Night of Zidane’s Career

France’s opponent in the final was the defending champions and favorites, Brazil. The team impressed everyone with its beautiful samba style of play, and its superstar, Ronaldo, was the player of the tournament. However, July 12, 1998, turned into a historic night in French sports. It was a key moment for the French national team and the most significant event in Zinedine Zidane’s national career.

Photo via FIFA.com

The match began with France dominating Brazil in many aspects. The hosts’ attacks paid off in the 27th minute when Zidane scored with a spectacular header from a corner to put France ahead 1-0. As the time reached halftime, France won another corner and once again, it was Zizou who headed the ball into the back of the net. The defending champions’ hopes faded away in the first half, and everything was in Zinedine Zidane’s name. The third goal for France in the 93rd minute was the final nail in Brazil’s coffin. Ronaldo and his teammates suffered a 3-0 defeat and France stood atop the football world with Zidane.

Zidane was chosen as the World Cup final’s man of the match, winning all possible individual awards of that year, including the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year. He had finally achieved his childhood dream and was a national hero.

Zidane’s Perfect Tournament

Photo via Getty Images by Claudio Villa

Now a sports icon, Zidane entered the UEFA European Championship, carrying a mountain of expectations. In the summer of 2000, he had the best tournament of his career, solidifying his position as the top player in one of the grandest of stages.

France, led by Roger Lemerre, faced a tough draw in Euro 2000. They were placed in the “Group of Death” alongside the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Denmark. The reigning world champions, in good form, secured their spot in the knockout stage with a 3-0 victory over Denmark and a 2-1 win against the Czech Republic. Zidane was one of the best players for Les Blues in the first two games and rested in the match against the hosts, which France lost 3-2.

In the quarterfinals, France faced Spain, and Zidane’s exceptional goal on a free-kick put them ahead. The Blues eventually won this nail-biting encounter 2-1, with Zizou named as man of the match.

Photo via Getty Images by Graham Chadwick

Portugal was their semifinal opponent. They had a golden generation led by Luis Figo. Zidane played one of the best matches of his career, scoring a golden penalty to lead France to the final. He was selected as the man of the match once again. Football fans will forever remember the scene where Zidane ran along the pitch and dribbled past five Portuguese players.

A Final For the Ages

In the final, France collided with the tough defensive wall of Italy, and even Zidane’s skills and passes weren’t enough to break through the Azzurri’s defense. While everyone was waiting for the referee’s whistle in the 93rd minute, Sylvain Wiltord scored the equalizer for France to force the game into extra time. The Blues imposed their strength on their tired opponent in the extra time, and David Trezeguet delivered the final blow to Italy. France became the champions of Euro 2000, becoming the first team to win the European Championship after the World Cup triumph.

Zinedine Zidane was named the best player of the tournament. His performances in Euro 2000 were among the greatest in football history. Many football experts believe that the level Zidane displayed in this tournament can only be compared to Diego Maradona’s extraordinary performance in the 1986 World Cup. Zizou was also named FIFA Player of the Year in 2000 and finished second behind Luis Figo in the Ballon d’Or race.

Photo via Thesefootballtimes

Years of Failure and First Retirement

France entered the first World Cup that was held in Asia as the defending champions. They, alongside Argentina, were considered the favorites before the tournament began. However, Zidane’s injury changed everything. Without Zizou, France lost their opening match against Senegal. In the second game, with Thierry Henry sent off, they couldn’t overcome Uruguay.

Zidane, clearly not fully fit, returned for the third match against Denmark, but France showed no signs of their World Cup ’98 and Euro 2000 glory days. They were eliminated after a 2-0 defeat against Denmark, marking the worst performance by a defending champion in World Cup history. Many football experts attributed France’s poor results to Zidane’s injury, which highlighted his value for Les Bleus again.

After the World Cup disaster, France came to Portugal to defend their title. Under the management of Jacques Santini, Les Bleus were in good form. In their first match against England, the Three Lions were clearly superior, leading 1-0 until the 90th minute. However, Zidane’s magic once again came to France’s rescue. He first equalized with a stunning free-kick and then, in injury time, converted a penalty to secure victory for France, capturing everyone’s attention again.

Photo via X/@Squawka

With a 2-2 draw against Croatia and a 3-1 victory over Switzerland, France topped their group and advanced to the knockout stage. Despite weaknesses in their defense, they were considered one of the main contenders for the title. Les Blues faced Greece in the quarterfinals, a team that few had given a chance. France suffered a 1-0 defeat against Greece, who eventually became the tournament champions, and Zidane couldn’t make any difference. Zinedine Zidane bid farewell to the French national team at the end of Euro 2004, leaving the fans in great frustration.

The Last Dance

After France faced difficulties in the qualification process for the 2006 World Cup, Zinedine Zidane, along with Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele, returned to the national team. Zidane later acknowledged that his brother played a role in this comeback. Raymond Domenech, the France coach at the time, immediately reinstated Zidane as the captain. His first game back in the blue shirt was a friendly against Ivory Coast, which France won 3-0, with Zidane scoring the third goal. In the World Cup qualifiers, he helped France climb from fourth place to the top spot, securing direct qualification to Germany.

Photo via Reuters

In the 2006 FIFA World Cup, France didn’t have a strong start. They drew against Switzerland and South Korea, setting up a must-win situation against Togo in their third match. Zidane, who had received yellow cards in both of the previous games, missed this match due to suspension. France defeated Togo 2-0 and advanced to the knockout stage as the second team in their group. Their opponent was Spain, who had a good tournament with their new generation. The football experts considered them the favorites against Les Blues.

France conceded the first goal from a penalty kick. While many fans had become pessimistic due to the team’s poor performance, Frank Ribery’s goal brought them back into the game. The first half ended 1-1 and after that, Zidane’s magic began again. France, seemingly revitalized, took the lead with Patrick Vieira’s goal on Zidane’s assist. In the final minutes, Zizou himself beautifully scored the third goal, deceiving Carles Puyol and Iker Casillas, securing France’s advancement before the final whistle. This performance renewed hope for the Blues in the tournament.

A Night to Remember

In the quarterfinals, France faced Brazil, a match that reminded football fans of the 1998 World Cup final. Brazil, the defending champions, were considered the favorites to win the tournament, seeking revenge against the French and Zidane. Names like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Cafu, and Roberto Carlos instilled fear in any opponent. However, on that night, only one man was finally in the limelight. The same man who had led France to victory over Brazil in 1998, showed his magic touch again.

Photo via Alamy

Zidane did whatever he wanted in that match. He showcased all sorts of dribbles and flashy moves against each of Brazil’s famous stars. In the second half, he sent a free kick to Thierry Henry, who, ready as ever, scored to put France 1-0 ahead. Contrary to expectations, the defending champions were feeble against France, managing only one shot on target. France once again defeated Brazil, with Zidane stealing the spotlight again. His performance against Brazil might have been the best of his career, remembered as one of the greatest individual displays in football history.

After eliminating Brazil, France became a serious contender. In the semi-finals, they faced Portugal, and just like six years earlier in Euro 2000, Zidane decided the outcome with a penalty. France was superior to the Portogees and never feared elimination. They beat Portugal 1-0 and reached the World Cup Final again.

The Curtain Call

The long-awaited day arrived. On July 9, 2006, at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Italy and France clashed in the World Cup final. This match was, in some sense, a reminder of the final six years earlier in Euro 2000 and their encounter in the 1998 World Cup. Zidane had announced before that he would retire at the end of the season, and everyone awaited his final performance in the ultimate final. The game started perfectly for the French. In the 7th minute, they were awarded a penalty that Zidane took. It hit the crossbar and memorably crossed the line, and France went 1-0 up against Italy. Zidane now became one of the four players to have scored in two World Cup finals.

The joy of Les Bleus didn’t last long, as Italy equalized in the first half through Marco Materazzi from a corner kick. The game continued with both teams missing chances, ending 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time, the most crucial moments of the game involved Zidane. Firstly, Buffon saved his powerful and spinning header in a great fashion. A few minutes later, an incident occurred that shocked everyone. Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the chest and was sent off. The image of Zidane walking past the World Cup without even glancing at it will be remembered by any football fan. A shocked France was defeated by Italy in the penalty shootout, missing out on the World Cup trophy.

Photo via FIFA.com

The Aftermath

Zidane was named the best player of the tournament, winning his last and one of the most significant awards of his career. Despite his red card in the final, his popularity in France grew, with a majority of people saying they understood his reaction on the pitch. Zidane later stated that he had no regrets about what he did.

Zidane’s Career at Les Bleus ended in the most dramatic way possible. The tragic ending proved his eccentricity once more. He was one of the rare footballers who could perform at the highest level at the age of 34 in the World Cup and, on the verge of glory, turned his back on it due to his strict moral principles. Zizou created many memories for football fans during his decade-long presence as a member of the French national team. Memories that everyone remembers Zidane by, depending on their point of view.

Alex Lundy
Alex Lundy
A lifelong football fan, Alex loves to dabble in its history, especially FIFA World Cup. But his love for sports doesn't end at football since he loves watching NBA and Formula1 too. Reading novels and watching classic films takes the rest of his time.
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