It was often said of Daniel Passarella that he was the dirtiest great player in the world. If this is the case, Zinedine Zidane must be in with a shout of being the most enigmatic great player in the world.
If one of the defining characteristics of being stereotypically Gallic is a certain stylish opacity, then Zidane is the most French person since Serge Gainsbourg. In under three years at Real Madrid, his first managerial job, he pocketed three Champions Leagues, an awesome achievement on the face of it. But two of those depended on deus ex machina moments falling in Real’s favour (Juanfran’s missed penalty at San Siro in 2016, Loris Karius’s extraordinary meltdown in Kiev in May), and Zidane’s management style – let alone his personality– remains something of an unknown quantity. Ask ten Real Madrid supporters to define the tactics they used under him and you’d probably get ten different answers.
He could be a visionary coach, he could be a big-name hack who got lucky with an exceptional collection of players, he could be something in between. We still don’t really know, and we won’t until he manages a club that doesn’t have effectively unlimited resources. This cuttings-job biography is long on contemplation of his greatness (leaving aside his infamous inconsistency as a player and habit of disappearing in the second halves of big matches) but very, very short on anything you might call a fresh revelation.
The book’s obsequious attitude to Zidane is encapsulated by its decision to refer to him throughout as “Zizou”, “Zinedine” or, in the earlier chapters, “Yazid”. When he savagely headbutts Hamburg’s Jochen Kientz in a Champions League game in 2000, it’s waved away as him merely exacting retribution for an earlier attack. As the red card comes out, “he clenched his jaw and turned towards the dressing-room”. When he does the same thing to Marco Materazzi in Berlin, again excuses are made that the man simply had no alternative in the circumstances, and that the evil Italians had laid a snare for him to fall into (even the chapter in question is titled The Trap). Fun fact: Zidane got 14 red cards in his career, one more than Roy Keane, and has the worst World Cup disciplinary record of any player ever to appear in the tournament.
Zidane: The biography is basically one big, long reverie rather than a rigorous analysis of its subject. Zidane himself wasn’t interviewed for it, and nobody else appears to have been either. Sycophantic lines like the one about his 2005 decision to delay his retirement from the game by one year – “Above all, Zinedine Yazid Zidane is a man of feelings, thoughts and impulses that are sometimes contrary but never stifled by material concerns. He did not despise money, however” – litter its pages.
It also does nothing to dispel the view of him as an unnaturally gifted lunkhead who could never quite suppress the ever-present urge to wallop fellow professionals. Or maybe the simple truth is that, for all the wonderful things Zidane did as a footballer in the 1990s and 2000s, there’s less, not more, going on under the surface than meets the eye.