Few France fans could have realised it at the time, but nothing short of a torch was being passed when Michel Platini played out his final season as a professional in 1986/87. Over at the Cannes youth academy that very same year, an unknown prospect by the name of Zinedine Zidane was making his initial introductions.

First spotted by former professional Jean Varraud, Zidane quickly revealed a potential forged in the back streets of the Marseille suburb where he had grown up. “That’s where I learnt all the basics of what I can do,” the youngest child of parents from the Kabylie region of Algeria later explained. “We were a group of ten or so friends and we practised different moves that were a bit special, which we’d show to other people once we’d perfected them.”

Zidane also picked up the virtues of humility and respect in those city streets, and both would go on to feed into his immense popularity. Despite all the trophies and medals in later years, he has never forgotten his top-flight debut for Cannes as a 17-year-old against Nantes in 1989, nor his maiden goal against the same opponents in 1991. And, above all, he has always kept in touch with the family who gave him a home during his stay on the Cote d’Azur.

“We’ve put up several young Cannes players, but he's the only one who’s stayed in contact with us and the only one who made it in the game,” said Nicole Elineau, who has fond memories of “a nice kid who ate chips between two slices of bread every Wednesday”.

Out on the pitch, meanwhile, the enthusiastic youngster was offering dazzling glimpses of the talent that would take him to the top, his natural discretion never threatening to mask his extraordinary technique on the ball. “He wasn’t the biggest player or the quickest, and all he ever thought about was dribbling,” said Varraud, shortly before he passed away in 2006. “He’d go past one, two, three, five, six players – it was sublime. His feet spoke with the ball.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, it was not long before opponents went out of their way to keep him quiet, and a second side to his game emerged.

School of hard knocks
True creativity often comes shot through with a strain of impetuosity, and Zidane’s genius with a football was accompanied by his uncompromising response to provocation. He picked up knocks left, right and centre, but he never shied away from giving as good as he got, and that refusal to back down earned him numerous suspensions. Then serving as academy director at Cannes, Guy Lacombe tried to find the young playmaker a different outlet for his frustrations.

“You’ll get knocks from now until the end of your career,” he warned Zidane. “That’s just how it is for players as gifted as you. If you take the law into your own hands, you’ll spend your life on the sidelines watching everyone else play.”

Lacombe suggested he try letting off steam by cleaning the dressing room instead, and for the rest of Zidane’s time at the Mediterranean club, it became a regular occurrence to see the future FIFA World Player of the Year with a mop and bucket in hand after games.

Tougher and wiser, Zidane left Cannes for Bordeaux in 1992, moving a rung up the ladder but still a long way from the glare of the media spotlight. The exciting prodigy continued to build his reputation in wine country, seducing fans with goals, tricks and laser-guided set-pieces while happily keeping himself to himself away from the action.

“One night, amid all the bustle of the dressing room, he started juggling a ball – just like that, right in the middle of the chaos and only using his heels,” recalled his coach at the time, Rolland Courbis. “I’ve known skilful players before, but Zizou was different. I could have spent the whole night watching him.”

He’d go past one, two, three, five, six players – it was sublime. His feet spoke with the ball.
Jean Varraud, the former player who discovered Zidane

The Bordeaux faithful were far from weary with his talents, either, when foreign adventure first lured Zidane away in 1996. His name had started to resonate around Europe ever since his stunning international debut two years earlier, when he announced himself as the man to fill the void left by Platini’s retirement.

With France trailing Czech Republic 2-0 in Zidane’s Bordeaux backyard, Les Bleus coach Aime Jacquet tried to mix things up by sending the local favourite into the fray – and the debutant responded with a pair of goals in the space of two minutes, rounding two defenders and rifling in a devastating left-footed effort before salvaging a draw with a powerful header. “My aerial game and my left foot are my weak points,” he explained afterwards, leaving a breathless nation wondering how good he could become.

Following in Platini’s footsteps
Zidane’s growing stature abroad owed much to Bordeaux’s thrilling run to the 1995/96 UEFA Cup final as well, especially his goal against Real Betis in the last 16, a stunning one-touch lob over the goalkeeper from 40 metres out. The French club’s inspirational schemer was to the fore again as they swept aside AC Milan 3-0 on home soil in an epic quarter-final game, fresh from surrendering the opening leg 2-0 in Italy. And although Bayern Munich proved an obstacle too far in the decider, Zidane was soon packing his bags for Juventus, the Serie A giants having been swayed by the recommendations of former Bianconeri star Platini himself.

Zidane’s first weeks in Italy came as a culture shock, however, as he struggled to keep up with Juve’s intensive pre-season physical work and tried to take on board a new tactical approach. “He came carrying the weight of his predecessor – everyone wanted to make comparisons between Zidane’s performances and Platini’s,” said Marcello Lippi, La Vecchia Signora coach when Zizou arrived. “I just told him to relax and play the way he knew best, and that he’d always be a starter because a player like him must always start for a big club. He’s the biggest talent football has seen in the last 20 years.”

The unfamiliar surroundings notwithstanding, Zidane’s abilities soon shone through and he became one of the most revered players on the planet during his spell at Juventus, collecting Serie A titles in 1997 and 1998, an Italian Super Cup in 1997, the UEFA Super Cup in 1996 and the Intercontinental Cup the same year. His passion for the game seemed to be boundless too.

“I remember leaving a restaurant at around 11pm and I saw Zidane playing football with people from a neighbourhood where he had Algerian friends,” added Lippi. “I said to him, ‘What are you doing at this time of night?’ and he answered, ‘I like playing with my friends.’ I told him, ‘You’re right, it’s wonderful. But make sure you don’t get to bed too late.’”

Sound advice, although even Lippi might have been prepared to make an exception on 12 July 1998, the night of France’s historic FIFA World Cup™ Final win. An automatic first-choice starter and the team’s emblematic No10 as the event got underway, Zizou initially failed to shine in front of expectant home crowds, but before the last ball of the tournament had been kicked he managed to show both facets to his game. His first notable contribution came when he was sent off for lashing out against Saudi Arabia during the group stage, yet he more than redeemed himself with a pair of headers – one of his so-called “weak points” – as Les Bleus defeated Brazil 3-0 in the showpiece.

Those goals cemented Zidane’s status as a French national hero and the accolades poured in, not least from Platoche himself, who declared himself “proud that it’s Zidane wearing the No10”. Having reached the summit of the sport, the player himself took a moment to reflect on how far he had come. “Like all children, in our neighbourhood we played our own World Cups,” he said. “When I ended up taking part in one for real, I always remembered that – the times me and my neighbourhood friends had played in our own little World Cup. In a way, I was representing them.”

Two years later, he tasted success again at UEFA EURO 2000, as France recovered to edge Italy 2-1 in the final. Still Zidane’s thirst for silverware raged, however, and it was a UEFA Champions League winners’ medal that remained most tantalisingly elusive. He had lost two deciders with Juventus, but he eventually won the competition at Real Madrid, after setting sail for the Spanish capital for a world-record transfer fee in summer 2001.

When I ended up taking part, I always remembered the times me and my neighbourhood friends had played in our own little World Cup. In a way, I was representing them.
Zinedine Zidane

Los Merengues added their ninth European crown in his first season at the Bernabeu, in fact, and in unforgettable style too, their recent signing sealing a 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen with one of the competition’s most sumptuous strikes. The teams looked set to head in on level terms at the break, but everything changed when Roberto Carlos lobbed an awkward cross into the area and Zidane volleyed the ball into the top corner with a majestic swing of his left boot – another of his supposed “weak points”.

Sadly, that was as good as things got for the Frenchman at Real. The club were certainly ambitious on the transfer front, bringing in the likes of Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Michael Owen and David Beckham, but after clinching the league crown in 2003 they experienced a trophy drought that did not end until after Zidane’s retirement in 2006. Playing perhaps the best football of his career, not even he could turn the tide.

Les Bleus were beginning to familiarise themselves with disappointment again too, having gone into the 2002 World Cup as holders only to exit at the end of the group stage. They lasted a little longer at EURO 2004, but that tournament could hardly be counted a success either as the defending champions bowed out to eventual winners Greece. Zidane had seen enough and supporters must have imagined they had watched him in blue for the last time when he promptly announced his international retirement.

Thanks for the magic
The pull of the shirt nonetheless proved too strong and Zidane returned to serve his country once again during the qualifiers for Germany 2006. “Everyone’s enthusiastic and optimistic about qualifying,” commented coach Raymond Domenech during the team’s testing campaign. “Personally, I’m not just thinking about qualifying – I’m thinking about going as far as possible.” With Zidane back pulling their strings, Les Bleus booked themselves a place at the tournament, but the veteran made it clear he would be hanging up his boots for good once it was over.

France’s final group game against Togo could easily have represented Zizou’s last cap, until Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry wrapped up a berth in the Round of 16. Next it was Spain, who hoped to send Zidane packing, only to be left exiting the competition themselves, as then happened to Brazil and Portugal in turn.

The boy from Marseille enjoyed the last word on each occasion and his side made an improbable run to the showpiece, meaning he would bow out of the sport after a World Cup Final – a fitting end to such an illustrious career. And, fittingly, the two sides to his game were once again in evidence during the tussle with Italy, his exceptional talent shining brightly as he chipped a penalty down the middle, Panenka-style, to outfox Gianluigi Buffon, and the refusal to back down earning him a red card as he reacted violently to provocation from Marco Materazzi in extra time.

In retrospect, perhaps the more moving and more appropriate farewell had actually come a few weeks previously at the Santiago Bernabeu. That night, Zizou weighed in with a headed goal, celebrated a victory and watched as 80,000 fans in Zidane shirts held up a banner reading simply: ‘Thanks for the magic’.