Few players in footballing history have been able to illicit such widespread awe as Zinedine Zidane. Whether it be the faultless first touch, his effortless glide or even something as prosaic as goals, assists and trophies, Zidane commanded admiration with his exploits on the pitch.
Who else could bow out of the sport with a red card for head-butting an opponent on the biggest international stage and be remembered more for how he controlled the ball?
Zidane’s brilliance has enthralled generations both young and old, while a particular bracket of today’s most talented creative forces have taken inspiration from the man so often lauded as his generation’s greatest midfielder.
Kylian Mbappé may have been born two days before Zidane was presented with the 1998 Ballon d’Or, but the Paris Saint-Germain starlet can still appreciate his talent, as he explained: “To start, as a child, it was Zidane. If you’re a boy and you’re French, your idol is Zidane.”
Zidane was at his best when seamlessly linking midfield and attack, offering himself as an elegant buffer. Mario Götze is one of many midfielders inspired to operate in the same role after seeing Zidane’s mastery of the position in the early 2000s.
Götze revealed that the Frenchman was his personal role model to the DFB’s official website, citing some of the great man’s stereotypically German qualities: “As far as football is concerned, this must be Zinedine Zidane – for his elegance, his efficiency, and his quiet composure off the pitch.”
Zidane may have racked up 14 career red cards, but few players have so regularly been heralded for their aesthetic brilliance. As Henrikh Mkhitaryan told the Arsenal website: “The way he was playing was amazing. He was like an artist on the pitch.”
In Mkhitaryan’s Players’ Tribune article, the Armenia international ranked Zidane alongside Brazilian footballing royalty and his father (who was a former player rather than a Shakespearian character): “I always wanted to play like Zidane, Kaká and Hamlet.”
On the eve of the 2015 Champions League final Julian Draxler, enjoying a quiet evening out at a Berlin restaurant, spotted his childhood hero across the room.
Draxler – a player who would command a £40m transfer fee that summer – is starstruck, too shy to tear himself off his chair and greet the great man. He resolves to introduce himself in more appropriate surroundings.
Their paths would cross again in the quarter-finals of the following year’s tournament. Draxler started for Wolfsburg against Zidane’s Real Madrid as the hosts surprisingly prevailed 2-0.
As introductions go, inflicting Zidane’s second ever defeat as Real Madrid coach is certainly more emphatic than an awkward handshake while hungry Germans bump past you.
It seems Draxler is not the only professional footballer to be overawed in such close proximity to Zidane. When Mesut Özil first met his hero in the Real Madrid dressing room, the German playmaker admitted to Arsenal’s website that his ‘hands were sweating’.
Özil recalled: “I was thinking about the time when I was young with my friends, I would buy his shirt and play as him in the cage where I was brought up.”
Years before Zidane joined Real’s coaching staff, a young Özil studied the Frenchman’s game: “I watched how he did his passes,” he told The Times. “He didn’t do tricks for the sake of it. He never wanted to show off. He just played a clever game. He’s the player who decides games.
“I watched his technique and tried to do that in my game, and a lot of times it worked.”
Prior to Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes-inspired resurgence, Paul Pogba seemed destined to join Zidane at Real Madrid.
This would have represented a fresh start for the 27-year-old and given him the opportunity to work under a man he so greatly admires. “On the pitch you have 11 players, in the squad, 22, and you see only one or two,” Pogba told FIFA’s website. “You always see him doing something special, the way he’s playing, it’s beautiful to see.”
Zidane’s play was so mesmeric that the Frenchman transcended the sporting realm. A documentary – Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – was released in 2006, tracking every move the midfielder made throughout a match for Real Madrid.
Pogba must be a fan of the critically acclaimed film given his similar approach to viewing the Ballon d’Or winner: “I was always watching him. The ball was in one place but I was always looking for Zidane.”
Eden Hazard has never been shy in expressing his fascination with Zidane, as he told Belgian broadcasters RLT: “Everyone knows the respect I have for the man. For the player he was and for the coach he is, he was my idol. Of course I don’t know what will happen in my career in the future, but to play under him would be a dream.”
Controversially, this effusive praise for Real Madrid’s coach was during his time as a Chelsea player.
However, Hazard’s affection for the generational midfielder goes back to his childhood when Zidane’s poster hung in his bedroom.
Pascal Delmoitiez, general manager at the Belgian’s first club Stade Brainois, revealed the admiration Hazard had for his current manager as a child. Delmoitiez told The Athletic: “He always compared himself to Zidane, copying his trademark moves, constantly mentioning him. He was his reference.”