Zinedine Zidane’s iconic 2006 tournament remembered

After two seasons of irresistible individual form, in the summer of 1992 a 20-year-old Zinedine Zidane made the switch from Cannes to Bordeaux, the latter club taking full advantage of the relegation from the French First Division of the former.

Between 1992 and 1994, within his new surroundings in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Zidane’s performances improved further still, yet they were never enough to gain him inclusion to France’s ultimately doomed attempts to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, with national coach Gérard Houllier preferring to let him continue his international education in the U-21 ranks. 

In retrospect, it was a damaging oversight for Houllier and France, as they squandered a strong position in qualification, spectacularly self-destructing in their last two games against Israel and Bulgaria, at the Parc des Princes, in Paris, across an incredible five-week span, narrowly losing both games to injury time winners.

A case of what might have been for Zidane, who was voted France’s Young Player of the Year in 1993/94, so he began a relationship with the World Cup that would be simultaneously fulfilling and frustrating.

Swinging from one extreme to the other, while Zidane had watched on helplessly from the periphery as France failed to qualify for the 1994 finals, he was front and centre as the World Cup was won on home soil in 1998, the scorer of two goals in the final itself, against the might of a disorientated Brazil at the Stade De France.

However, even within his most glorious World Cup, Zidane had experienced pain alongside the pleasure, as he was sent off in France’s second group game, against Saudi Arabia, for a stamp on their captain, Fuad Anwar.

It was an incident that resulted in him being suspended for two games, the second proving to be a stubborn last-16 encounter with Paraguay, where a bit of Zidane vison might have made progression easier than it was. 

Four years later, Zidane picked up a thigh injury in the build up to the finals in South Korea and Japan.

Absent for the opening two games, which resulted in a defeat and draw against Senegal and Uruguay respectively, half fit, it was in desperation that he was rushed back for the final group game, against Denmark. Another loss marked a swift end to France’s defence of the World Cup.

Zidane’s return for the 2006 World Cup

Zinedine Zidane on the ball for France
PARIS – MAY 27: Zinedine Zidane of France in action during the international friendly match between France and Mexico at the Stade de France on May 27, 2006 in Paris, France. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Having retired from international football after their quarter-final exit at Euro 2004, by the summer of 2005 France’s fortunes had descended into such a dysfunctional state that then were in a very real position of peril when it came to their hopes of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. 

Coaxed back into a French shirt, Zidane helped turn the situation around, helping lift Raymond Domenech’s side from fourth with three games remaining, to top a close group ahead of Switzerland, Israel, and Ireland.

It hadn’t been pretty at times, but the experience and determination of Zidane had been key to France averting World Cup qualification ignominy.

As World Cup year began, there was little in the way of optimism for France after they were beaten in a friendly by Slovakia in Saint-Denis. Opting for a low profile from that point on, it wasn’t until the last two and a half weeks prior to the finals that Domenech started to pull his team together.

Under the radar, they picked off wins against Mexico, Denmark, and China, before heading to Germany. 

Handed the captaincy by Domenech, Zidane was surrounded by other familiar, yet ageing 1998 World Cup winning figures, such as Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, and David Trezeguet. 

Joined by a clutch of talented relative newcomers such as Willy Sagnol, Eric Abidal, William Gallas, Franck Ribéry, and Florent Malouda, Zidane also had the contributions of Claude Makélélé and Sylvain Wiltord to rely upon.  

While both Makélélé and Wiltord had been regular presences in the French squad across Zidane’s time, the former had only blossomed late on the international scene, while the latter had mostly been a peripheral support figure.

In the case of Makélélé, just like Zidane, – and indeed Thuram – he had also had to been coaxed out of a self-imposed international retirement to take on the mission of the 2006 World Cup by Domenech.

Zinedine Zidane celebrating with teammates
BERLIN – JULY 09: Zinedine Zidane of France celebrates with his team mates after scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot during the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006 Final match between Italy and France at the Olympic Stadium on July 9, 2006 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Zidane was part of small squad at 2006 World Cup

What France had going into the World Cup was a squad within a squad, as only 14 players would make the starting line-up for games in Germany, two them being afforded just one start each.

There might have been tensions within Domenech’s collective, but they came together when it was needed the most. 

As the tournament began, France continued to operate beneath the radar, as they were held to frustrating draws in their opening two games against Switzerland and South Korea, in Stuttgart and Leipzig respectively.

Zidane’s reaction to the second of those results, in which he picked up his second yellow card in succession, was to take his frustration out on a door at the Zentralstadion, which then went unrepaired, left as a lasting memento to the greatness and volatility of a player for who the 2006 World Cup would represent the final act of his glittering career.   

With one group game remaining, there was a very real possibility that a repeat of the 2002 World Cup was about to unfold. These fears were further exacerbated by Zidane and Abidal being suspended for the crucial clash with Togo.

In his absence, France laboured to a 2-0 victory against the African World Cup first-timers, held at bay in Cologne, until Viera and Henry procured a goal each within a six-minute span either side of the hour mark. 

Functional at best, France were being heavily written off as they went into their last-16 encounter with an in-form Spain, in Hanover. Zidane was back however, and with a personal edge to the occasion and a point to prove for Domenech’s side, a shock result and performance suddenly had the world sitting up and taking note of France.

Zidane’s masterclass vs Brazil in quarter-finals

Zinedine Zidane celebrates win over Brazil
FRANKFURT, GERMANY – JULY 01: Zinedine Zidane of France applauds the fans, following his team’s 1-0 victory, whilst a dejected Ze Roberto of Brazil lies on the pitch after the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006 Quarter-final match between Brazil and France at the Stadium Frankfurt on July 1, 2006 in Frankfurt, Germany. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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Racist remarks about Henry made by the Spanish head coach, Luis Aragonés, in 2004, had hovered over the game, and France’s 3-1 win seemed the perfect riposte to not only that incident, but also their troubled campaign up until that point.

It was Zidane who was on target with the third goal in the final minute of the game. 

On to Frankfurt France went for a repeat of the 1986 quarter-final, as Brazil lay in wait, edging through against opponents who had been shimmeringly impressive, yet not truly tested so far; Henry scored the only goal as resilience won the day.

Zidane’s performance against Brazil ranks among the greatest ever produced on the World Cup stage.

A star-studded Selecao side, which included the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Cafu and Ronaldo Nazario, just could not lay a glove on the midfield maestro.

Check out Zidane’s individual highlights from the epic 2006 encounter…

Video: Zidane’s magical highlights vs Brazil

What. A. Performance.

In Munich, another semi-final reunion with Portugal was decided by a first half Zidane penalty. It was football by determination rather than flair, but France were into another World Cup final.

A fitting stage to bring the curtain down on his career, in Berlin Zidane struck the image of the French general against Italy, opening the scoring from the penalty spot off the underside of the crossbar, before Marco Materazzi equalised.

Zidane then carried his team into a position to strike for an unlikely glory. 

With ten minutes of extra time remaining, incendiary words were exchanged between the two goalscorers and one of the World Cup’s most iconic moments was born, Zidane’s playing career ending in the most shocking and abrupt manners imaginable. 

Italy went on to take the prize, but for France as a collective the game essentially ended with Zidane’s, in that extraordinary 110th minute.

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