A colossus of the world game for many years, Zinedine Zidane won everything there was to win in a staggeringly successful career for club and country. With his creative skills, elegance and killer instinct, the French wizard stamped his indelible mark on an entire era, picking up FIFA World Cup™, UEFA Champions League and Intercontinental Cup winners medals, not to mention the FIFA World Player of the Year, European Player of the Year and a host of other accolades.
After bidding farewell to the game on that fateful night in Berlin, Zidane is adapting to a new life away from the cut and thrust of football. This favourite son of Marseille is settling into his role as an international ambassador and seems to be rather enjoying his new way of life.
The somewhat publicity-shy hero has given few interviews to the written press since Germany 2006, but he was in Zurich this week for the FIFA World Player Gala and took valuable time to speak with FIFA.com. Read on as the inimitable 'Zizou' reflects fondly, without apparent nostalgia, on a glorious playing career.
FIFA.com: Zinedine, you are in Zurich for the FIFA World Player Gala. What is your opinion of the two men sharing the podium with you, Fabio Cannavaro and Ronaldinho?
Zinedine Zidane: Fabio Cannavaro is a defender and in the past it's usually been forwards and playmakers who've got the recognition. He deserves to be here though, no doubt about it. In the World Cup Final he was very quick to impose himself in his battle with Thierry Henry. That's something he does really well. You have to remember that he's a world champion too, and that counts for a lot. As for Ronaldinho, well there's not much I can add to what people already know. He's a magnificent player. The goal he scored recently against Villarreal illustrated that to perfection. The move developed so quickly, but he knew exactly what he was going to do, and that takes special talent. He had his back to goal and he turned so sharply you were wondering if he knew where the goal was. Yet that didn't stop him from producing a perfect bicycle kick.
You have had a very busy 2006. What has been the highlight for you?
The World Cup adventure, without doubt. Not many people thought we could make it to the Final and that made it all the more satisfying for us. It was something that we achieved on our own. I can't really pick out any specific moment; it was the whole thing really. I knew it was my last tournament and to reach the Final - even though I would have liked it to end on a happier note - with everyone working together with such grit and determination was simply amazing.
And on a personal level?
I've been involved in so many things since I stopped playing that I haven't really had the time to stop and think about it all that much. It's been extremely rewarding and interesting to meet people who aren't involved in football, like I did in Bangladesh. I've also met some fascinating people like the Nobel Peace Prize winners and I even managed to get back to my roots by spending a few days in Algeria.
Although the red card may have overshadowed the rest of the FIFA World Cup Final a little, a lot of other things happened in that game, like your penalty. Talk us through it.
I hadn't planned on doing a Paneka (chipped penalty), but I knew I was going to need something special. I usually put my penalties in the same place but I was up against a man who, alongside Barthez, is the best keeper in the world. I had to try something different and when I put the ball down I knew I was going to chip it down the middle. I saw straightaway that the ball was clearly over the line.
Buffon's wonderful save from your bullet header was another key moment.
It certainly was. I couldn't help yelling when he kept that out because I knew that if it had gone in we would have definitely have become world champions. There wasn't much time left and everyone was running out of energy. That header and Ribery's effort right at the end could have tilted the match in our favour. I vented my frustration at Buffon, but in a nice way because I know him well and he's a good guy. He was pretty sympathetic after I was sent off as well. No doubt he was relieved at my dismissal because he knew I could have made the difference late on, and it meant I wouldn't be taking a penalty in the shootout. I can't tell you how I would have taken it though.
How and where did you watch the end of the game?
On my own in the dressing room. It was the hardest thing to watch my team-mates finish the game and then lose on penalties. It was so hard to take. I was a bag of nerves before the penalty shootout.
For many people your best performance came against Brazil. Did you pump yourself up for that game?
Playing against Brazil is always different. We didn't prepare in any special way for the match, but they always tend to inspire you. We don't try and make things too complicated against them; we just go out and play our game. I don't think we won just because of me, as the whole team performed brilliantly. It was an exceptional performance. I did manage to pull off a couple of things that were a little out of the ordinary though, and that's always nice.
You had a difficult start to the tournament didn't you?
We got better and better as the World Cup went on. We made a slow start. We were a little unsure of ourselves and the group games turned out to be very tight. The win over Togo helped us relieve the pressure that had built up since the disappointment of 2002, and we needed that to give our confidence a boost. Then we beat Spain, who were one of the big favourites after a highly impressive first round, and that made us even more confident. By the time we came up against Brazil we really didn't have anything to lose.
The Spanish press were a little harsh on you in the build-up to the second-round game. How much did that motivate you?
I didn't need any extra motivation to face the Spanish. Not many players get the chance to experience one World Cup, let alone two, and it's the tournament all footballers want to take part in. For me it was my third World Cup and the previous one had been a major disappointment. That said, the fact that the Spanish media said they were going to pension me off did get me going a little. I felt like saying to them, "No, tonight's game won't be the last of my career." That was all though. More than anything else, I was delighted we beat them so we could continue the adventure.
Did you honestly believe you could reach the Final?
We knew that we had the makings of a great team. We all said before the World Cup began that if we got into peak physical condition and were in the right frame of mind, we could go all the way in Germany. And that's just how it turned out. We got stronger and stronger - apart from the slight dip against Portugal - and we played pretty well in all our games.
You are now facing the challenge of succeeding in a career outside football. What has the transition been like for you?
I was happy with the way my career ended because it was my decision. What is hard is when someone else makes the decision for you, when you're told that it's time to go. I retired because it was the right time for me and because I'd had the career I wanted. To be honest, it was more than I'd ever dreamed of. Naturally, whenever I watch a game now I think back a little to my playing days.
The end of a career is always a good time for looking back. What do you think was your best ever performance?
The game I always go back to is the Champions League semi-final for Juventus against Ajax. We won 4-1 and I set up two goals and scored one myself. We were looking at the stats after the game and I saw that I had given away very few balls. My passing was right on the button. I was on the top of my game that night.
And the high point of your career?
Winning the World Cup. As any player will tell you, that's the ultimate. Not everyone can win it but I was lucky enough to do so and on home soil too. I couldn't have been happier.
And the best player you have ever played with?
When he's on form, Ronaldo is an exceptional player. Some of the things I saw him do just amazed me. He's been sidelined quite a lot during his career and he's just coming back from another injury. It's difficult to say whether he'll recapture his top form again but I know he's capable of it. When he's in full flow, he's the best there is. He's got the lot. His technique might not look particularly special at first sight but the fact is he can do whatever he wants with the ball. He's also got a gift few people have; he's quicker with the ball at his feet than many players are without it. What's more, he's a great finisher. He's Ronaldo, and there aren't too many like him around.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
The first person to believe in me, Mr Varraud, my coach at AS Cannes, who is sadly no longer with us. He was a great support and set me on my way. After that there were a lot of people who pushed and helped me, too many for me to mention.
Your career lasted nearly 15 years. What was the biggest change in football in all that time?
In the eighties, technique was the most essential thing. Defenders were perhaps less tactically aware and you had more space and more time on the ball then. Today it's all about playing quickly and thinking quickly. Not just that. Players are athletes now and things have turned round a little.
You need to be physically strong now and if you've got the technique and the strength, like Ronaldinho for example, then it's perfect. It's tough, though, if all you've got is technique. The young guys coming through now all are big and strong but technically gifted with it. Look at Hatem Ben Arfa at Lyon. He's well-built and he's fast. But who knows? Maybe in years to come all that will change again.
Talking of football's future, are there any changes you think we should make to the game?
When you get to 30 your body starts to change and it becomes harder and harder to recover from each match. It's even harder when you have to play three games a week. By the end of my playing days it was tough for me. It's inevitable that the game as a spectacle suffers. So in the future, if people are really serious about keeping the entertainment levels up, perhaps they ought to start thinking about playing less games.