A couple of years ago amid the general excitement and fanfare surrounding the celebration of UEFA’s centenary there were the usual gambit of “greatest” polls conducted by many groups. The most prestigious was understandably the one run by Uefa itself. The poll was conducted via its website over a number of months and invited votes exclusively from the football loving public and unveiled its winner in grand fashion on the day of the centenary. As is always the case with such things the decision was contentious. Zinedine Zidane, the French maestro had been voted the greatest European player of the past hundred years, ahead of such giants as Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Maldini. The people had spoken.
Polls are one of the fads of our time. They are guaranteed to titillate the interest of an ever more competitive public. The anniversary of the death of every Saint, the penning of every major work and the, beginning and the end of every war are rich material for the pollsters. One thing is certain though, there is little science in polling and therefore they polls to resolve nothing either factually nor in the arena of public opinion. That is why Zidane’s coronation was greeted with derision by many within and without the football fraternity. The Germans cried foul, and maintain that Beckenbauer has no equal: so too the Dutch for Cruyff and van Basten and the Italians for Maldini and Baresi. Others simply pointed out that ordinary football fans are no authority on football; they are biased and near sighted. Anyway most of the techno junky cyber net users were far too to have seen Puskas, Di Stefano, Best and Banks at their prime!
All of these were perhaps valid objections, and probably none borne out of dislike of Zidane, the man or player. So is there any way in which we can judge footballing greatness, or any greatness for that matter? Ruminating over this question and trying to limit the subjectivity in my own mind, I have stumbled upon a simple set of criteria for myself. Brilliance, class, leadership and achievement are the goalposts by which I believe some approximation of fair judgement can be reached.
Brilliance, in footballing terms, is what we generally refer to as skill. That is a player’s technique and ability to do the basics of football, his first touch, shot, crossing quality and vision. For instance, no one blessed to see it, can ever forget Tony Yeboah’s amazing goal for Leeds United, a full decade ago. He controlled a high pass on his chest, then onto his thigh before thundering in a fearsome shot from some thirty yards out. Sheer brilliance!
Class is somewhat more difficult to pin down. But put simply class has to with the style in which something is done. Therefore it is an aesthetic quality, not essential but ever so pleasing to the eye and soul. Few players encapsulate this quality like the Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp. He may not be the goal scoring predator he once was but even today at the ripe old age of 36 there air of expectation every time he is on the ball. He does simple things beautifully. It is not the flash of a young Christiano Ronaldo or a cheeky Tulio (who once mocked the opposition by literally walking the ball into the net & nearly got himself shot for his troubled). No, instead, it is what the French call a certain something… a certain je nesaiscrois…
While it is true that every great player is a ready made captain, it is true that all great players are leaders. It is a prerequisite, from which I believe there is no escape. This simply means they must be someone whom people will follow, especially their team mates on the field of play. You will often hear it said by television commentators that when Ronaldinho or Nedved or Maldini plays well, the team plays well. This does not just mean that their skills are so important that they dwarf those of the others, though this may be true. Instead it means the rest of the team in a draws from or feeds on the energy of their star. The rest of the team finds its inspiration in him. Thus, he leads the team. Last years Champion’s League Final is a case in point. Steven Gerrard,Liverpool’s talismanic captain had a quiet first half and his team was duly thrashed by a far superiorMilanside. However, Gerrard came out to play in the second half, driving his team forward, setting one goal and scoring another, in the process leading his side to the most improbable victory in living memory!
Some of the finest players to have played the beautiful have not been smiled upon by fortune. For all their brilliance, class and leadership these players did not achieve footballing success. In other words they won very little or nothing of significance. This is the proverbial major trophy: the biggest prize of course being the Giles Rimet Trophy aka the World Cup. Others are the European Cup, the Copa America, the European Champion’s League and of course the World and European Player of the Year awards. The list of those who during their careers failed to reach these heights, though their talents deserved it, is a pantheon of stars past and present: Roberto Baggio (he of the divine ponytail), Alan Shearer, Gheorghe Hagi & Gabriel Batistuta among them. The legacy of the recently deceased George Best, for all his genius, is all the poorer for his misfortune of being Irish. The Irish are a rubbish team now and they were a rubbish team then. So though some have drawn comparisons between Best and Pele himself, the former’ lack of success on the international stage stacked against Pele’s three World Cup medals, means the thought is really a non-starter. Therefore, when everything has been said and done, greatness is rooted in achievement.
Using these few criteria we can begin to compare the relative greatness of this and that player. So how could that inform our thinking about Zidane’s contentious award? I immediately concede my relative ignorance about the great players of generations past. Therefore, I only advocate Zidane as the greatest player of his generation: 1990 onwards. I believe the evidence of such a position is overwhelming. He is head and shoulders above the other contenders. It is true Ronaldo is a two-time World Cup winner and three-time World Footballer of the year and the greatest finisher of our time, but it would be a stretch to describe him as a great leader. Instead it is his wont to punctuate ninety minutes of lazy anonymity with one two moments of sheer brilliance. I myself am a great admirer of Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, a player who makes the sublime seem easy. Henry is brilliant; a player who wins games single-handedly. He is class personified; Mr Va Va Voom himself. In his time at Arsenal, particularly following the departure of Patrick Vieira, he has shown himself to the heartbeat of the team that plays the most beautiful footballEurope. However, Henry’s European Cup and league titles are modest achievements compared to those of some others.
If Real Madrid, among its “Galacticos”, has “Three Princes” (Ronaldo, Zidane & Figo), it has only one King; Raul. Raul isMadridand Madrid Raul, the two are inseparable. In his glitteringMadridcareer, that already spans more than a decade he has had wonderful success, winning everything on the domestic and European front. He has led from the front both as captain ofMadridandSpain. He is the record goal scorer for both and also the greatest goalscorer in European club football. Yet the ineptitude of an always promising Spanish side does Raul no favours. Ronaldinho is rightfully the toast of planet football at present. His skill and vision is phenomena, not seen since Maradona. He is also the consummate entertainer with a penchant for the beautiful and extravagant! His World Cup winners medal is also not to be sneezed at. And withBarcelonamoving into another golden era, there is every reason to believe that a great deal of domestic success will indeed come his way. In time Ronaldinho may indeed surpass Zizou but for the time being he remains the apprentice to the master.
Perhaps, the player with the most compelling case, for wresting the honour away from the Frenchman, is the irrepressible, the great Paolo Maldini. TheMilancaptain’s career is so profound as to make it impossible to capture in a few short lines. Now in his twentieth season withMilan, he is a footballing institution and one wonder’s what Italian football would look like. He is the quintessential one-club-man, having made a record making number of appearances. He has won every domestic and club honour time and again. He is a three-time Champions League winner, has a fistful of Serie A titles, all that to go along with his individual awards as European and World player of the years! Maldini also has a place in history for being a key member of Arrigo Sacchi’s Nezzazzuri side of the late 80sand early 90s, one of the greatest footballing teams to grace a football pitch. For some five years in the company of Messrs Gullit, Rykaard, Baresi, Donadoni and Gullit they thrilled the world with their brand “Total Football” and swept aside all comers in the process.
In the midst of all this was Maldini the player. For more than a decade he was the finest wing back in all of football, combining his rare two-footed play, accurate tackling and tactical nous to deadly effect. It has been a rare occasion to see Maldini’sname ommited from any World XI selection. Even more than his play two things have set Maldini apart as a true giant of the game; his class and his leadership. The consummate professional and the cleanest of players, Maldini has been without reproach and withstood the pressures of stardom with dignity, making him the ultimate role model. As a leader, he has been without equal, the leader of leaders. He has captainedMilanwith distinction since the retirement of his mentor and defensive partner Franco Baresi. For all these things, it was perhaps his failure to lead his beloved Azzuri international success, whom he captained to four major tournaments, that handicaps him. In truth, history will look back in surprise that a golden generation of Italian players, including the likes of Baggio,Nesta,DelPiero, Vieri, Donadoni and Albertini, under an inspirational captain dramatically capitulated at successive tournaments when destiny demanded triumph. This is Maldini’s albatross…
And then there was one. It has been said that when Zidane has the ball at his feet, it is like watching ballet. He glides across the turf if floating. I would find it hard that a player with a better first touch has ever played the game. Technically he is without fault. At well over six foot he is strong, good in the air, a decent tackler, an accurate shot, a wonderful dribbler and a visionary.
Zinedine Zidane’s success as footballer is profound in footballing history. His rise to the pinnacle of the game is comparable to that of the Angolan-turned-Portuguese legend Eusebio. Zidane, born of Algerian émigré parents and growing up on the rough streets of Marseille is, to many, more than a man, but a symbol. He confidently straddlesEuropeandAfrica, commanding the adoration of both. Moreover, he is the leading light of what was the great renaissance of French football. Still hankering for the days of Platini in presence of an impotent national national team, and having suffered the ignominity of Marseille’s expulsion from European football, French football was in desperate need of redemption. It was 1998 and up stepped Zidane, flanked by the likes of Deschamps, Duggary, Desailly and Thuram, and they shook the foundations of the world. In a final draped with drama, what with Ronaldo’s mysterious illness, the French were firm underdogs. It was Zizou who won the headlines, taking the match by the scruff of the neck, scoring two uncharacteristic headed goals. In the end it was a rout and France and Zidane were on top of the world. Zidane was the player of the tournament. He showed himself a player of sheer class, one who has a sense of moment.
Two years later Zidane and his friends repeated the trick defeatingItaly, in a match which by right they should have lost, at Euro 2000.Francebecame the first team to hold the World and European cups simultaneously. While it was Deschamps who wore the captain’s armband it was Zidane who gave the team life. Embarrassing failure at 2002 World Cup precipitated the break up of the old guard but at Euro 2004 Zidane shone bright once again, if only briefly. In a dramtic first round match against the old enemy,England, and down one goal to nil going into stoppage time,Francefaced potential elimination from the tournament. The great man would have none of it, scoring two goals in two minutes, the second an exquisite free kick!
In the midst of all his international success Zidane has dazzled football lovers week-in week-out playing for his various club teams, first Marseille, then the Old Lady of Juventus and now los Merengues of Real Madrid. There was general shock and disbelief among the Juve faithful, when the club decided to sell Zizou toMadridfor a world record fee in the summer of 2001. AtMadridhe promply led the side to a two La Liga titles and as well as a third Champion’s League title in five years. In the final againstGermany’s Bayer Leverkusen, he gave us another snapshot in time by scoring one of the great European goals. To this day one can scarcely conceive the skill and technique at work as he swiveled on his right leg to meet a ball a chest-high ball with a fluent with fluent swing of his weaker left foot, sending the volley flying into the top corner of the net. Brilliance! In so doing Zidane captured the one major title missing from his collection, having already won multiple Serie A titles with Juventus; this to go with his record equaling three World, an d two European, Player of the Year awards.
As if to put icing on his own cake over recent years Zidane has shown an admirable social consciousness in his partnership with Ronaldo, as a Unicef Ambassador and by hosting their annual World Stars charity match. So when one looks at the totality of Zidane’s carreer it is difficult to come to any other conclusion: he is the greatest of his generation. His footballing brilliance, his class, his leadership and his achievement are without question and without peer. He is indeed a giant among giants. It should also be remembered that his career has not yet run its course. A dismal French qualifying performance in the run up to this year’s World Cup put paid to his brief international retirement as he responded to an urgent SOS from his countrymen. Coming back for the final two qualifying matches, and installed as team captain, Zizou guided his team through two tricky ties and into Finals. His selflessness and sense of duty was not lost on the French public. So at this upcoming tournament, in perhaps his final bow, who is to say that the man they call Zizou will not go out a champion once more? Whatever the case, he is the greatest player of our time and perhaps, in time, he will be shown to be the greatest European to have played the game.
By: Karabo Che Mokoape