The image of so many hagiography driven World Cup ads are those with the groups of people (kids, generally, for maximum effect) huddled around a TV in some slum, inner city or favela, watching the World Cup at some ungodly hour of the night. This image was seared into my mind, especially during the ads in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup. Those ads themselves were such a part of my youth-built interest into this great game. They featured U2's 'City of Blinding Lights' a most U2-ish song to promote peace and understanding and commonality across nations - all the same garbage the World Cup tries to stand for.
One year, I got to live that advertisement, be that kid huddled in a dark room on a dark street, millions of miles away, watching the illuminating glow of a non-flat-screen TV, with the sound on low as to not wake the residents. One time I was in that position, having to get up (or stay up, can't remember which) late into the night to watch two countries square off. I wasn't poor, the location wasn't a favela, but the setting was similar, and the appeal was the same: pure magic and enchantment, led by the best player of his generation putting on one last great show for teh world to see.
I went to India over the Summer of 2006, leaving the US in the brief window between the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinal. I wasn't a huge fan of soccer - at least in a relative sense compared to where I am now. I knew somewhat what was going on. I loved Zidane, an attachment I still don't know the origins of.that love. I have reasons why I started supporting Peyton, or Oswalt, or Marty. For Zidane, I have no idea why it started, or where, and for one thing I only started really following him in the last month of his career, but follow him I did. But the 2006 World Cup wasn't fully about the player that would define it, for both good and bad.
I was in 9th Grade at the time, and for some unknown reason, our High School actually showed a lot of day-time games in the Study Hall quarters. The tournament started more or less in the last couple weeks of the year. The better (see: cooler) teachers even showed the games in their classrooms. Being in high school the other students actually seemed to care. People wore jerseys of their home countries. There was a buzz around the school. In reality, there was a buzz around the country.
The 2006 World Cup was the first one I remember that was marketed and shown in the US as the premier tournament it is. ESPN pulled out all the stops. The setting was great, with the German crowds and stadiums supporting the tournament well. It was an interesting time in the sport, with a number of countries that were trying to hold onto the last pieces of Golden Generations (France, Brazil, Italy, Portugal), with two future dynasties being born (Germany, Spain). France had won the 1998 World Cup, but entered the '06 show as something of an underdog. They struggled in their group, before drawing Spain in the Round of 16. In an incredibly open, compelling game, France beat Spain 3-1, with Zidane scoring the 3rd goal in stoppage time. This would be the last time Spain would lose a knock-out stage game for 10 years.
Next up they got pre-tournament favorite Brazil. Brazil had the world's best player at that moment in Ronaldinho. That was a fleeting title in 2006, a period where Ronaldo and Zidane stopped dominating (so we thought), and Ronaldinho, Kaka, Shevcenko were names winning the Ballon D'Or. Brazil was the favorite. France had the history. It was a special night in Frankfurt. And a little 15-year old boy in Bangalore was ready to take it all in.
The game started at 12:30 AM in India. I was in India purely for Holiday, so I had no qualms staying up for this match - a historic Quarterfinal affair between two of the blue-blood countries in soccer. The people hosting me, however? They might not have liked it. To assuage any concerns, I agreed to put the game on softly. I put the brightness of the TV down. There were enough electric personalities and talents of the field to illuminate the game as it was.
2006 was an interesting time in soccer. The preceding years were very defensive in general, with Italian sides and those coached by Jose Mourinho doing extremely well. Barcelona won the Champions League the month before the World Cup, but at this point they were nothing like they would be three years later when Guardiola took over. Tiki-Taka was not a thing. Spain barely out-possessed France in the Round of 16. The game was not more open, but more even. One of my worst complaints of the Barca-heavy era of Soccer (2008-2014) was how each game turned into a version of one team getting 70%+ possession and the other parking the bus. That just didn't happen in 2006. And with the great crowds, singing and chanting to their hearts content, the stage of the 2006 World Cup was special.
The game itself was fairly evenly played - if you removed Zidane from the field. Less than 30 seconds in, he got the ball near the mid circle., held off two Brazilian defenders, did a quick turn, and tried to spring Henry through. It was a quick, complex attack made so simple (as is everything Zidane did). Within the first minute, Zidane made it known this was going to be his night.
Zidane was spellbinding, brilliantly controlling the game as only he could. He made the sublime look simple. Whether it was one of his patented pirouettes, a self-volley to clear the ball in a dangerous position, a quick one-two to spring an overlapping fullback, to a simple flick and header to advance an attack. Zidane was magnetic, was dominating in a simple, mundane sense that defined his career. Nothing seemed out of flow. Zidane wasn't about doing things that seemed impossible. His brilliance was making the impossible seem easy, and rarely did he do it better than this game.
Zidane's flick and header to advance the ball was what led to the foul that allowed him to take a free-kick in an advanced dangerous position. His free kick was looping, arced perfectly into the far corner, where Thierry Henry met it and roofed it right past Dida. France's goal was quick, but perfectly executed (Brazil's defending on the free kick was summarily the opposite of perfectly executed). The rest of the game was without much drama (the closest Brazil really came was an 85+ minute free kick opportunity to Ronaldinho). But if anything, Zidane's control on the game only grew.
My favorite moment of the match came about the point I was ready to turn it off and retire for the night, as we approached 2AM (future me would be shocked at any inability to stay up to 2AM). Zidane found himself on the ball ahead of the mid-circle, but ahead of most of his teammates. He dribbled around, pulled back, and then released a perfectly weighted touch, looping through ball to Willy Sagnol. It was audacious in its microscopic exactness. It looked so simple in its execution. The master was playing around, in control of everything around him.
For a young kid, this was a performance seared into my mind. I was those kids in the ads, spellbound by the magic emanating from the TV screen. I was hooked into this brilliant player playing this great game. Zidane's performance is one of legend, covered and honored by sportswriters, fans and historians, but for me it was a personal moment. I stayed up way past my conventional bedtime to watch my favorite player. I wasn't sure why he was my favorite player, but I knew he was, and since that game that has never wavered. Zidane's magic was on full display, his grace oozed through the screen, a glittering example to a small kid stuck in a dark Bangalore apartment of how beautiful the beautiful game could be.