Football fans will debate who the ultimate GOAT is until the cows come home, but for those who were watching in the early noughties there’s just one candidate who stands above all others.
Zinedine Zidane, popularly known as Zizou, was quite simply a magician on the pitch with a physical presence that was far exceeded by the sort of grace that you wouldn’t expect from a man that stood at 6ft 1in tall.
The attacking midfielder, who played for the likes of Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid, made the impossible possible on the football pitch, whether that was by gliding past countless opponents, scoring a stunning volley in a Champions League final or seeing his career ended by a shocking headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, there’s not many players where you can genuinely say you don’t know what’s coming next.
With a Champions League title, three league titles, two intercontinental cups, a European Champions and a World Cup – not to mention three FIFA World Player Of The Year awards – to his name, you’ll be hard pushed to find a more respected former player in world football.
A player who is 50 years old today, Zidane made a huge impression on some of football’s greatest names, and here, talkSPORT looks at what they have all said about him.
Baresi was renowned as one of the greatest Italian defenders in history and was at AC Milan when Zidane first made his mark at Juventus in 1996.
“He was as elegant as a dancer – he even used the soles of his boots efficiently.
“Everything was easy for him; he made such movements that if I tried to copy them I would break my legs.”
The football-turned-broadcaster had hung up his goalscoring boots by the time that Zidane reached prominence.
That said, Lineker has clearly seen enough to regard the French maestro among the best ever.
He simply said: “The most elegant footballer I have ever seen.”
Ibrahimovic is one of football’s most talented mavericks in the present day, but reserved special praise for his predecessor on that front.
“When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple. It was magic.
“He was a unique player. He was more than good, he came from another planet. His team-mates became like him when he was on the pitch.”
Zidane’s biggest achievement was winning the World Cup with France in 1998, and Les Bleus’ skipper Desailly couldn’t help but heap praise on the playmaker who famously scored twice in the 1998 final against Brazil.
Describing Zidane, Desailly said: “A true artist. What he could do with the ball was incredible. Only Maradona could do the same.
“Zizou was also a player capable of rising to the occasion at important moments, and deciding games.”
Scholes was Manchester United’s midfield star during the height of Zidane’s success, with the duo facing off on several occasions in the Champions League.
He said: “To see Zidane in action was to witness poetry in motion. The skills, the vision, the goals…he was a sublime performer.
“When he was at his peak, winning the World Cup, the Champions League and all the rest, he was unquestionably the finest player on the planet.”
The Brazilian legend is remembered as one of the best players in recent memory, but even he looked up to Zidane as the man who inspired him to reach such great heights.
“Zidane is one of the best footballers of all time, one of my idols.
He had such elegance and grace, a wonderful touch and superb vision.”
Arguably the most famous footballer on the planet, Beckham knows Zidane better than most.
The duo spent three years playing together in Real Madrid’s famous Galacticos side, with Golden Balls himself giving the French star the ultimate compliment.
He said: “To train with Zidane for three years was a dream. For me, he is the greatest player of all time.”
Henry was a player who was good enough to have the France stage all to himself during his career, such was the level of his talent.
Unfortunately for him, he’d have to make do with sharing it with Zidane, a player whom he described as ‘a god’ after Zizou was reintroduced back into the international fold in 2005.
“In France, everybody realised that God exists and that he is back in the French international team. His name is Zinedine Zidane.”
An all-time great with 103 caps for West Germany and one of the few to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager.
It takes something very special to impress someone like Beckenbauer, and Zidane fits the bill.
“Zidane is unique. The ball flows with him. He is more like a dancer than a football player.”
Arguably the greatest player of all-time, Pele is the man that every footballer would love to surpass.
In the words of the Brazilian legend, Zidane may have done exactly that.
He said: “Zidane is the master. Over the past 10 years there’s been no-one like him, he has been the best player in the world.”
A basketball legend, Johnson was left in awe after seeing Zidane shine as Real Madrid beat Deportivo La Caruna 3-1 at the Bernabeu.
Speaking of his performance, he said: “One of the most inspiring nights of my life.
“Zidane is a phenomenon, as good as me and Michael Jordan put together.”
The Brazilian left-back was another key part of Real Madrid’s Galacticos side of the early noughties.
Despite being one of many stars in the side, Carlos believes that Zidane was the cherry on the icing on the cake.
“He is the best player I’ve seen,” Carlos said, “Supporters arrived earlier at the Bernabéu just to see him warm-up.”
The Belgian star was able to live out his childhood dream by playing for his hero at Real Madrid having looked up to Zidane in his playing days.
Asked while at Chelsea if he’d want to play under Zidane, Hazard said: “Yes, of course. When I was little, I watched him on TV and on the internet for hours.”
Speaking in a later interview, he added: “He’s the best ever. He was elegant when he played. He wasn’t quick but he could do everything with the ball.”
While enjoying life as a player with Zidane at the Bernabeu, Brazilian legend Ronaldo believes that Zizou has showed that he’s just as good a coach as he was a player.
“Zizou [Zidane] has been the best player I have trained and played with, and now he has become a coach and won three Champions Leagues in a row.
“That is why today I ask myself: ‘Who is better, Zidane the player or Zidane the coach? But I can’t answer”.
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