Has football ever hosted a greater spectacle than Zinedine Zidane at the peak of his powers?
The first touches, the roulettes, the delicate chips… poetry in motion.
And not that new minimalist poetry s**t either, we’re talking Shakespeare.
Zizou, being the big-game player he was, saved his superhuman form for the biggest stage of them all; against Brazil at World Cups.
Let’s take a closer look at two of the best single player masterclasses ever witnessed…
It’s the 1998 World Cup final.
On home soil, France have made it through to the final and are up against Brazil, the most decorated country in football history.
Despite some pre-game confusion, Ronaldo starts for the samba kings.
Brazil’s No9 is considered the best player in the world and many are expecting him to dominate the main event.
Not France however, they have their own superstar.
In the game’s opening exchanges it quickly becomes apparent that Ronaldo is not 100%.
The hosts smell blood.
With Emmanuel Petit, Christian Karembeu and Didier Deschamps providing the industry behind him, Zidane goes to work.
He orchestrates the game so it swims along at his tempo, ghosting in the space between Dunga and Brazil’s back four.
Halfway through the first half, France win a corner and Zizou sprints away from the dazed Ronaldo and attacks the near post.
He remembers every coach’s advice and heads the ball the down.
As the ball hits the net, the Stade de France erupts.
The look in Zidane’s eyes as he celebrates, bumping chests with Frank Leboeuf, terrifies Brazilians everywhere, it’s clear he’s operating on a higher level.
Brazil are desperate to get in the changing room and regroup.
With a minute left of the first half all they have to do is avoid further damages, then maybe Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and co would rally.
Another corner, this time from the other side, and again the ball is drawn towards Zidane at the near post and he bundles Dunga to the ground before powering home a second header.
Petit made it 3-0 seconds before Brazil were put out of their misery by the full-time whistle.
Zidane was named Man of the Match as France’s biggest street party commenced on the streets of Paris.
The country’s racial tensions melted away as fans of all cultures, colours and creeds chanted in unison for their Algerian-born hero.
A thank you message to Zizou was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe as the rest of the world debated whether the French maestro had taken Ronaldo’s title as the planet’s best.
Brazil licked their wounds and must have surely thought they would never come up against such an inspired individual performance again.
How wrong they were…
Eight years later France and Brazil meet again.
This time it’s the quarter-final of the 2006 World Cup and Zidane and Ronaldo are now club team-mates, fellow Galacticos at Real Madrid.
Before kick-off in Frankfurt, the pair laugh and joke together apparently unaffected by the pressures of knockout football.
Some fans may have been concerned by this friendly exchange.
Where are the steely stares?
But after just 30 seconds of play it becomes apparent that Zizou is in no mood for friendship or mercy.
He rests his foot on top of the ball before dragging it back and turning away from Gilberto Silva and Ze Roberto.
A stepover takes him past another but not even Thierry Henry is expecting such a opening so early in the game and he stands rooted offside while Zidane’s outside-of-the-boot throughball travels through to Dida.
Brazilians with clear memories of 1998 must have felt a shiver down their spine; he’s not going to do it again, is he?
The rest of the half is punctuated by moments of serene composure in the middle of the park.
He expertly controls the ball in mid-air with micro touches off his thigh, chest and shoulder, bringing the ball (and the crowd) under his spell.
As half-time approaches he skips past two sliding tackles and releases Patrick Vieira, who is cynically brought down by Juan to prevent a one-on-one situation.
The holes Zizou has picked are beginning to widen.
Soon after the interval Zidane casually lifts the ball over Ronaldo’s head and calmly heads it to Eric Abidal.
The Brazilian’s trademark gappy smile is nowhere to be seen now.
Seconds later France win a free-kick and Zidane whips in an inviting free-kick for Henry to volley in at the back post.
On top of everything else, his set pieces are inch perfect.
This is the game’s only goal but there’s more Zizou brilliance to come.
Just like at the Stade de France, he quickens and slows the game’s tempo at will.
He doesn’t give the ball to his team-mates, he merely lends it.
As for Kaka, Ronaldinho and Juninho, they haven’t a hope of even sniffing possession.
With 20 minutes remaining Zidane remembers that he hasn’t shown off his signature move.
He gives Gilberto a glimpse of it in midfield then as the Arsenal man lunges in, Zidane pirouettes away; a perfectly executed roulette.
At the end of the game his opponents can only congratulate and let him soak up the applause.
Alongside some of Diego Maradona’s efforts in 1986, Zidane’s exhibition in Frankfurt must be considered among the finest individual displays in World Cup history.
Worth remembering here that Zidane was 34-years-old and only played two more games before retiring.
Even now those who watched these two vintage performances live, either in the flesh or on television, treasure the memories and do everything they can to prevent distortion.
We bow to you Zizou, truly a master of the game.