Growing up in a typical Indian family, I spent the majority of my childhood “mastering” the art of loving cricket — the country’s most popular sport.
I indulged in football, too, of course, but the month-long sessions used to come once every four years — during the grandest extravaganza on earth, during the FIFA World Cups.
Coming from a line of avid Brazil supporters, I didn’t put in the effort to know other teams and their talisman.
So, when defending champions Brazil lined up to face France in the quarter-finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, I made the obvious choice of rooting for the favourites.
The start-studded Selecao weren’t expecting a walk in the park, of course, but they weren’t quite prepared to deal with the magnificence that unfolded.
Only 35 seconds into the match, France captain, Zinedine Zidane, gave a sneak peek of what’s to expect, brushing aside three Brazilian midfielders to attempt an over-the-top through ball.
Over the course of the match, the 34-year-old created numerous memories, each adding a new chapter to the “Art of Football.”
On the 56th-minute, the number 10 curled in an inch-perfect free-kick for Thierry Henry at the far post to give France the lead.
Huffing and puffing, Brazil did try their best to keep up, but they were no match for Zinedine Zidane’s divinity.
The match left a long-lasting impact on me. I had to know more about the player who toyed with my favourite team, and I read his origin story.
By the time I uncovered the Frenchman’s connection with La Liga giants Real Madrid, he had already hung up his boots.
Fortunately, I wasn’t too late to see the next chapter of his life — the chapter that has defined Real Madrid’s modern era.
Zinedine Zidane — The saviour
Zinedine Zidane ended his playing career in the most dramatic way possible — headbutting an opponent in a World Cup final. And he began his managerial career just the same — jumping in to revive Real Madrid’s sinking ship.
Following Rafael Benitez’s abysmal spell, no Madridista in the world expected Real Madrid to bounce back, not immediately, at least. Zidane, however, was in no mood to stand on ceremony.
Not only did he lead Real Madrid to their 11th Champions League title — beating Wolfsburg, Manchester City, and finally, Atletico Madrid — but he also picked up a 2-1 win in his first-ever Clasico, at Camp Nou.
He led Real Madrid to 12 consecutive wins in La Liga, and only finished a point behind runaway leaders Barcelona.
Next season, Zinedine Zidane bridged the gap with Barcelona, helping Real Madrid to their 33rd La Liga title.
In Europe, Real Madrid, once again, reigned supreme and cruised to their 12th Champions League — beating Juventus 4-1 in the final.
His third season came with a sharp dip in performance in La Liga, but the team’s European dominance continued.
Zidane, capitalising on Gareth Bale’s stunning brace, helped Los Blancos to their third consecutive Champions League, making them the only team to repeat the feat since Bayern Munich in 1976.
After winning every major trophy with the club, Zinedine Zidane decided to take a little sabbatical.
Real Madrid reluctantly appointed Julen Lopetegui as head coach and hoped for the best.
Los Blancos endured one of their worst-ever campaigns under the tutelage of Lopetegui — and later, Santiago Solari — and found themselves 12 points behind La Liga rivals Barcelona.
In the Champions League, Ajax handed the holders a 4-1 hammering at the Santiago Bernabeu, ending their three-year reign as champions.
And if that wasn’t enough, Real Madrid also came out second best in their Copa del Rey semi-final tie against Barcelona.
Out of options, club president Florentino Perez requested Zinedine Zidane to come back and save the Royals once again.
It’s been over 15 months since Zidane’s fabled return.
The players who looked dead and buried the season before now look sharper, stronger, and more determined than ever.
Even without Eden Hazard’s services for the majority of the season, Real Madrid have managed to match Barcelona on points, pulling ahead on head-to-head.
During his first stint, many branded Zinedine Zidane as the luckiest coach on earth, claiming that the manager was only banking on Cristiano Ronaldo’s firepower to win trophies.
His tactics were also downplayed. He was still called a sub-par coach — an opportunist who capitalised on his predecessors’ hard work.
The accusers aren’t that vocal anymore, they are busy praying for their coach to be half as good.
The Frenchman is now unanimously hailed as one of the best in the business, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
When Zinedine Zidane walked into the star-studded dressing room of Real Madrid in January 2016, he didn’t care about the previous results and disappointments.
He sought out the biggest personalities in the dressing room and created a harmonious atmosphere.
The former World Cup winner demanded compassion and commitment from his players and gave them immortality in return.
Zidane — the player, was about grace and beauty. Zidane — the manager, is all about hard work and efficiency. On the surface, the two personalities are poles apart.
Deep down, they are still the same — unyielding, unmatched, and divine.
As a fan, I haven’t had the chance to watch Zidane at his best on the field, which, in many ways, makes his managerial stint all the more special.
The boss, who turns 48 today, has a knack for defying the odds, and I pray I get to see him at his ruthless best out on the touchline for the foreseeable future.
Happy birthday, saviour! Real Madrid are lucky to have you.
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