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THE DAY ZINEDINE ZIDANE GAVE PEP GUARDIOLA THE RUNAROUND

Words: James Bird
Images: Getty

A bright slick of midsummer sun streams diagonally across the Jan Breydel Stadium and makes the faces in the crowd glow. It's 25th June 2000. The EUROs quarter final. Spaniards with red and yellow flat caps are jumping around. Groups of France fans wave billowing tricolours and wear plastic cockerel heads over their French heads. Pierluigi Collina ducks his head under the doorframe that leads to the tunnel and strides out. Second from last to emerge are two men about to spend ninety minutes testing each other’s place in the food chain. Zinedine Zidane wears 10; Pep Guardiola wears 4. They walk out onto the pitch.

A La Masia scholar since he was 13, Pep has been the fulcrum of a Barcelona midfield shifting through the ages. A European Cup, six La Liga, controller of Cruyff’s Dream Team, captain of Van Gaal’s and Robson’s, a footballer that Xavi, Fabregas, and Pirlo have spoken about as writing the blueprint. Pep hasn’t played against Zidane before. Zizou’s eyes are alert.

In the wild, chameleons can move their eyes independently of each other, observing an approaching object while simultaneously scanning the rest of their environment. Monocular vision, where both eyes are used to look at separate things at once, is common in prey animals. Imagine being able to see two different things in different places happening at the same time.

There are 72 seconds gone when Zinedine Zidane uses his monocular vision to disappear from Pep Guardiola’s sight for the first time. A throw-in from the right-hand side in the Spain half, Zizou lets the ball bounce once across his body, kisses it with his right knee, moves left, and now there are three Spanish players after him, including Pep. He makes a dash for it. Breaks free into safe land. Puts in a cross. In this nature documentary, the predator’s first attempt has failed. Dinner cancelled. Hans Zimmer’s strings have just got goingFor the next 86 minutes, Pep will always be close to what was marked as his prey, but he will never, ever be close enough. Zimmer’s opening strings will turn full symphony; the slo-mos will go hypersonic. Zizou will become the apex predator. He will chest the ball over Pep and collect it on the outside of his boot, and Pep will not be close enough. He will emerge with the ball from crowded Spaniards, stride into space, and Pep will not be fast enough. He will swing a free kick into the top corner of the net from 25 yards out, and Pep and his wall will not jump high enough. He drags the ball around Pep in the middle of the pitch, gets crosses past him down the wings, and dribbles past him on the edge of the France box.

It is a performance so overwhelming that Pep brought it up in a press conference 20 years later after Manchester City played Zidane’s Real Madrid. Unprompted, Pep looked at a room full of journalists and, after talking about him being one of his idols as a player, said, “I played against him in the national team with France, and I suffered a lot.”

Four years after his first major tournament and six before his last, this was Zizou taking international football and turning it into a kickabout on top of Mount Olympus. One eye on Pep, another on the surrounding environment, the whole world looking up and waiting to see what’s next…

The above is from our Issue 23 cover feature Zinedine Zidane in 10 games. That's sold out, but you can subscribe to MUNDIAL now to make sure you don't miss out again by clicking here.

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