“It’s always been said there were players who were born to play for Real Madrid and I think in Zidane we have one such example.” These were the words of club president Florentino Pérez at the unveiling of Madrid’s then €77.5m world-record signing from Juventus, Zinédine Zidane, in July 2001. Fittingly it was Alfredo Di Stéfano, honorary president and an attacking inspiration from yesteryear, who presented Zidane with his white shirt. It had No5 on the back, chosen by the Frenchman because it was free and he had not wished to take a team-mate’s.
The symbolism of Zidane receiving the shirt from Di Stéfano gained a new layer of meaning ten months later at Hampden Park. It was there that Di Stéfano had scored three goals, and Ferenc Puskás four, as Real Madrid won their fifth European Cup final in 1960. Back at the same venue it was Zidane’s turn, and the goal with which he won Madrid their ninth – a glorious swivelling volley – was one fit to win any match, let alone a Champions League final in his club’s centenary year.
“A goal for the ages” was the description in the next morning’s Marca, beneath the front-page headline of “El Zid”. Fifteen years later in an online poll of almost 20,000 of the newspaper’s readers, 42% voted it Real Madrid’s greatest goal.
Madrid had ended the domestic campaign empty-handed. In his first season, Zidane’s talent had flickered rather than finding full flame. Entering the spring he had six Liga goals to his name, and one in the Champions League. Gradually, his decisive moments grew: he scored in a 1-1 Liga draw at Barcelona in mid-March; a month later came the opening goal back at Camp Nou in a 2-0 Champions League semi-final first-leg win – Madrid’s first at the home of their arch-rivals for nine years.
The final that followed was no formality. Bayer Leverkusen had seen off Manchester United in the semi-finals, denying Sir Alex Ferguson a showpiece in his home city of Glasgow. And the Bundesliga side were in no mood for the final to become a centenary celebration, despite the concession of a scruffy, eighth-minute goal, when Roberto Carlos’s long throw caught them napping and Raúl González’s scuffed shot rolled past Hans-Jörg Butt.
Four of Leverkusen’s side would play in the World Cup final six and a half weeks later and two combined to equalise five minutes later, Lúcio nodding in Bernd Schneider’s inswinging free-kick.
Over to Zizou. For those of us at Hampden that night, other details may stick in the mind – the old ground bouncing to The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) before kick-off, substitute Iker Casillas’s heroics in the face of a late Leverkusen onslaught – yet ultimately one moment alone now matters. Though already a World Cup and EURO-winner with France, Zidane had lost European finals with Bordeaux and Juventus. A month shy of his 30th birthday, he took hold of his and his team’s destiny in emphatic fashion.
His goal, in the 45th minute, is a piece of majestic technique and timing. Chasing a Santi Solari ball down the left wing, Roberto Carlos stretches out a leg and hooks over a high first-time cross. As the ball drops Zidane stands sideways to Butt’s goal, just inside the penalty box. He watches and waits, then as the ball approaches the turf, swivels and unleashes a thunderous volley with his supposedly weaker left foot. The ball flashes beyond Butt and crashes into the net behind him. Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmöller shakes his head.
Zidane’s celebration is a moment of release. Off he runs, first over to the touchline and then up it; nothing choreographed, just a roar from his lips and a pump of his fist. Madrid’s world-record man had delivered.
Years later, he reflected: “I tried to score the same way, even during shooting for an advertisement, but it never happened again. Never. It was perfect the day it happened, but it never happened again.” Sometimes, truly, once can be enough.