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Of balletic control and sublime skill

Madrid: If it had not been for a dismal World Cup, French midfielder Zinedine Zidane may well be giving Ronaldo a closer run as the two Real Madrid teammates fight it out for football’s end of year awards.

The pre-tournament injury to the inspirational playmaker effectively torpedoed his country’s chances of a successful defence of the crown they won so convincingly on home territory four years ago.

In terms of morale the team never recovered from the blow of missing their talisman, while in purely footballing terms they missed his presence so much that by the time he returned to face Denmark in the final group match there was little he could do to stop an ignominious first round exit.

But World Cup failure aside, 2002 was still an exceptional year for the world’s most expensive player.

The balding, slightly uneasy-looking figure, who looks a good deal older than his 30 years, scored what was probably the goal of the season with his stunning winner in the 2-1 victory against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final at Hampden Park.

Keeping his eyes fixed on a high and hopeful cross from Roberto Carlos the Frenchman drifted away from his markers before unleashing an unstoppable left-foot volley from the edge of the area which sailed into the net. It was a collector’s piece of a goal and the perfect way for Real Madrid to secure their ninth European crown.

With one moment of technical genius the Frenchman, showed just why Real had been prepared to pay a world record $66 million to secure his services last year. That goal also enabled the modest Frenchman to add a missing medal to his burgeoning collection and helped him get the vote from Uefa as the most valuable player in last season’s competition.

Despite having to serve the remainder of a five-match ban incurred while he was still at Juventus, Zidane proved to be the most influential player in Real’s journey to the final, scoring a crucial goal in the first leg of the semi-final against Barcelona.

But it had not been all plain sailing in his first season at Real. The mild-mannered Frenchman took time to settle at his new club and later admitted that he was affected by the degree of media pressure he was subjected to following his move from Juventus.

He took time to gel with his new teammates, but eventually began to show touches of the almost balletic control and sublime skill that make him one of the most aesthetically-pleasing players in the world to watch.

Of course, he was not capable of producing his best week in and week out in the league, but he proved once again that he is capable of turning it on in the key games.

No player in the modern game possesses his vision or his passing ability. He sees gaps in defences even before they appear and his apparently lazy passes unleash his attackers with unerring effectiveness.

His calmness on the ball and the apparent ease with which he floats behind his strikers hides an aggressive streak and determination to win, while, as he proved at Hampden and the Nou Camp, he can score great goals too. When he is not exhibiting his skills on the football pitch Zidane tends to shy away from the media spotlight, preferring instead to spend time with his wife Veronique and his children.

The son of humble Algerian immigrants Zidane has become a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations and is the embodiment of multi-ethnic France.

He has become a role model for thousands of French children who share similar roots. His status transcends his position as a world-class footballer and he was clearly aware of this when he stood up and called for a massive vote against the extreme right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in this year’s presidential elections.

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