The respect was there for all to see. Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane, Brazil and France’s talismanic No10s, had been Clásico rivals for three years by the time they met in the quarter-finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. They had been mutual admirers for a great deal longer.
“Zidane is one of the best footballers of all time – one of my idols,” the Barcelona star had said of his Real Madrid counterpart. “Ronaldinho,” replied Zidane, “is total class – a very, very great player.”
Germany 2006 had been billed as the Brazilian’s tournament. Ronaldinho had been crowned FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, and had just won the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona. He looked to be at the peak of his exhilarating powers.
Ronaldinho’s top trophies:
1 FIFA World Cup
1 Copa America
1 UEFA Champions League
2 FIFA World Player of the Year awards
Zidane, on the other hand, was on the way out – and seemingly on the slide. The 34-year-old had suggested as much himself three months before, in announcing that he would retire after the World Cup. “I cannot carry on for another year,” he had said. “It’s been three years since we (Madrid) won anything, and in two of those, I’ve not played as I’ve wanted. I am not going to play any better than I have done in the past.”
The French press agreed, and there were plenty of pundits who argued that this aging icon should be dropped; that he was no longer capable of influencing games as he once had. When Les Bleus opened their campaign in uninspiring fashion, drawing 0-0 against Switzerland and then 1-1 with Korea Republic, those critics’ knives grew sharper still.
Even after France made it through the group phase, and Zidane went on to score in their 3-1 Round of 16 win over Spain, no-one anticipated the masterclass that would follow in Frankfurt. Many still consider that quarter-final performance the greatest of Zizou’s entire, spectacular career, with the assist he provided for Thierry Henry’s match-winning goal surrounded by several dazzling moments of skill and grace.
As the man himself told FIFA.com in 2013: “There was magic in the air that day out on the pitch.”
Zidane’s top trophies:
1 FIFA World Cup
1 UEFA European Championship
2 UEFA Champions Leagues (one as player, one as manager)
3 FIFA World Player of the Year awards
The about-turn in attitudes was immediate. French newspaper La Provence immediately dubbed Zidane a “master without equal”, adding that “he was more Brazilian than the Brazilians.”
Contrast that with Brazil’s Estado de São Paulo’s description of Ronaldinho as “the big letdown of the World Cup”. The 26-year-old, their correspondent wrote, “played badly, didn’t dribble, didn’t have a shot at goal, misplaced passes and did not, at any moment, take responsibility”.
The Brazilians were, however, nothing if not gracious in their praise of Zidane. “He made the difference – even more than in 1998,” observed A Seleção’s coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. “This was probably his best performance in the last eight years.”
“Zidane was the magician in the game,” echoed Pele, an awe-struck onlooker in the Frankfurt stands. “He is a master. Over the past 10 years, there’s been no-one like him. He has been the best player in the world.”