Brazil have figured prominently on Zinedine Zidane's path to greatness. His brace against A Seleçao in the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ Final and his performance in the quarter-final classic versus the same opposition in 2006 helped secure him a special place in the footballing pantheon.
Zizou renewed acquaintances with his old foe during the Final Draw on 6 December 2013 in Costa Do Sauipe, when Brazil's fate and their chances of lifting the FIFA World Cup on home soil rested quite literally in the France legend's hands. FIFA.com had the opportunity to chat to the former midfield maestro about his World Cup memories and his unique relationship with the land of Pele.
FIFA.com: How does it feel to see the footage from the 2006 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, in which you starred?
Zinedine Zidane: It's a nice feeling. Truth be told, I don't often watch videos of my matches, but the good memories quickly come flooding back. There was magic in the air that day out on the pitch; both my team-mates and I felt it. We really did have a wonderful generation of players. It was a special time.
Was that the crowning performance of your career?
So they say, but to be honest I'm not so sure. It's right up there with my best displays. But what does "crowning" mean, anyway? I really don't know. I think there were a few others that rivalled it, at least in my opinion.
But there is no denying Brazil were a team that inspired you. As well as that match in 2006, the final in 1998 is another obvious example. You could say Brazil were your best enemy.
It's odd. When I talk about Brazil with some former players, they see them as a top footballing nation, but that's about it. But in my case, they always inspired me. Against them I always managed to raise my game and so did my team-mates. Every time we faced A Seleçao, we felt like we were capable of anything. We were always the underdog, but that's often when you produce your best efforts. That's the way it worked out for us.
You virtually humiliated Brazil over the course of those two matches, yet the Brazilian people don't seem to hold it against you. Do you feel at home in Brazil?
I think "humiliate" is going a bit far. We won and that's all there is to it. [Smiles] But it's true, I don't get the sense they harbour any grudges. Every time I've come here, the people have given me the impression they admired what I did against them, when you might have expected them to greet me with stones! [Laughs] Incidentally, the other day I bumped into Mario Zagallo, who was the Brazil coach back in 1998, and I was very touched by something he said. He told me that if he could have picked one non-Brazilian to play in his team, he would have chosen me. Coming from Zagallo, The Professor, that's quite a compliment.
In a way, you could say your game was steeped in Brazilian football.
Absolutely. When I was a kid and I used to play with my friends from the neighbourhood, we would stage mock World Cups. Who do you think everyone wanted to play as? Brazil. So it's a country that's always been part of my life... And then the dream came true: I played in the World Cup for real and I had the chance to face Brazil. So I said to myself: "This is it! Go out there and enjoy it. What's the worst that can happen? Even if you lose, no one will be mad at you. Do your best and have fun. And if you can beat Brazil, it will be quite something to look back on at the end of your career." [Smiles]
What are your earliest memories of Brazilian football?
The 1982 World Cup, without a shadow of a doubt. I was ten at the time and I can still picture the likes of Socrates, Zico and Julio Cesar wearing that yellow shirt… There were so many stars in that team.
Which Brazilian player influenced you the most?
There are too many to list. But, having had the chance to rub shoulders with him, for me the best has got to be Ronaldo, whom I played with at Real Madrid.
What sort of words spring to mind when you hear the name "Brazil"?
Celebration, joy, happiness, the yellow shirt! Class, pure bliss. And the people know their stuff, too. I think it's going to be a fantastic tournament full of fantastic players.
France will be there. What did you make of their qualifying campaign?
They qualified – that's the good news. France is a country that quite simply has to be at the World Cup. What happened in qualifying is in the past now: what's important is that we'll be there. That's what it comes down to.
Do you think having triumphed in adversity could help them overcome challenges further down the road?
Definitely. Qualifying is the hard part. And when you've been through an experience like that, you tell yourself: "We made it!" After that it's a whole new competition. There are still the warm-up games to come and the tournament proper kicks off six months after qualifying ends... That's when you have to be ready, both physically and mentally. It will be a different mindset. I hope they are ready when June comes around.
How do you rate Les Bleus' chances at the upcoming World Cup?
They have a good chance. The players are already gearing up for it... But, like I said before, they will have to be ready when the moment of truth arrives. We can speculate about how good they are now, but it's in six months' time that they will need to be firing on all cylinders and prepared to do something big. They have what it takes: France have the players to make an impact.
How does it feel to win a World Cup? What does it mean on a personal level?
The World Cup is the icing on the cake. It's the pinnacle: something that can't be topped. Every player dreams of playing in the tournament and very few manage it. Then when you get there, the goal becomes to go as far as possible, to reach the final, to try to win it, to score… And when you've done all that, you feel on top of the world! It's every footballer's biggest dream.
And what does winning a trophy like that mean for a country?
It's huge. We experienced what it meant to people back in 1998. Even though we were in our own little bubble in Clairefontaine, we could see what was going on outside. It's incredible how football can bring people together. That's what we managed to do: at one point, however fleetingly, we were able to create that sense of communion among the people out on the street. For a while, at least, we could claim to have created something unique through sport.
What do you expect the Brazil World Cup to serve up?
Like everyone, I'm expecting a party atmosphere. Brazil is the country of football, it's as simple as that. Even if the sport was invented in England, Brazil has contributed so much to its development. This World Cup is unmissable. If you had to choose one to play at, this would be it.
Do you see anyone as favourites?
It'd be nice if a European team won in South America, but I don't see anyone in particular as favourites. There are no more minnows at this stage. There used to be a big gulf between the big guns and the rest, but that gap has really narrowed.