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The debate over the world's greatest player will always exist - the difference in generations, leagues, positions and nationalities means it's ultimately unsolvable. Who is to say that it requires less skill being a defender than by being a striker? None can say for sure, yet Fabio Cannavaro is the only defender to have won the Ballon D'or in this century. In this random meandering of thoughts, I will propose a different player to the usual Messi, Maradona, Pele debate. Bare with me, make some tea, and don't judge me quite yet - I think the greatest player who has ever lived is Zinedine Zidane.
Now most of you would probably say that whilst you acknowledge Zidane was a great player, he isn't comparable to those three footballing gods. The problem however is that the regular judgements made are based on goals and assists. If you look at what a footballer is judged on ultimately though, Zidane's achievements, but more his performances especially in the key matches, provide (I hope!) a compelling argument for his rightful place on top of the footballing world.
The importance of this second factor cannot be overestimated - the ability to play well and dictate the big matches is something that only the very best players can do. Leagues and trophies are decided on the big matches. It was Zidane's ability to dominate in these games which makes him so exceptional - even in a match against the world's best, he would be a class above. Look at the World Cup finals in 1998 and 2006, the 2001 Champions League final, the quarter final against Brazil in 2006 against the tournament favourites and defending champions, and numerous others besides.
Amongst the many adulating quotes about Zidane, one stands out. Not just because of who said it, but also because what they said emphasises exactly his memorising ability to stand out amongst the world's best, and inspire his team - "Zidane was from another planet. When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It is that simple" (Zlatan Ibrahimovic). Zidane, perhaps more than any other player, performed on the big occasion, and that is the mark of the greatest player.
Aside from this ability to dominate in big games, there is another string to my argument. Zidane was also the only player who has achieved the greatest success possible on both the club and national level, something that neither Messi, Ronaldo, Pele nor Maradona did.
It is unquestionable that Zidane achieved huge success on the international stage having been the fulcrum of the greatest French side in history. The success of the team between 1998 and 2006 was spearheaded and created by Zidane, the epitome of French flair on the pitch; the best description from his teammates -"In France, everybody realized that God exists, and that he is back in the French international team" (Thierry Henry). Prepare yourself for a barrage of examples, and if you don't think they show a great international career, just give up.
In the 1998 World Cup final, Zidane was man of the match, player of the tournament, and scored twice. In Euro 2000, Zidane scored an exquisite freekick in the quarter final and the winning golden goal in the semi final, before being named player of the tournament again. Whilst injury prevented full participation in the 2002 World Cup, in Euro 2004 he saved his side in the opening match with a brace against England and they went on to reach the quarter finals. Finally, in the 2006 World Cup, Zidane scored goals in the last 16, semi final, and final, and was again named player of the tournament.
Leaving behind what can only be described as a breathtaking international career making him an icon throughout his nation, Zidane's ability in the domestic game was equally entrancing. Zidane is rightly revered as a real Madrid legend, having signed for the world record fee of £42m before making 225 appearances for the club. As the face of the infamous Galacticos, Zidane showed his ability in the big games yet again with a spectacular goal in the 2001 Champions League final. The stunning volley with his wrong foot personified Zidane's ability - a glorious piece of skill, based on phenomenal natural ability but crucially delivered on the biggest stage in club football.
On a small sidenote, another argument for Zidane's status as the world's best is his performances in different leagues. He won trophies in France, Italy and Spain - best known as the face of Madrid for six years, Zidane had before won World Player of the Year at Juventus alongside two Scudetto's and two Champions League finals.
It is worth noting in the furore following Messi's fourth straight Ballon D'or, (which Ronaldo should have won!), that Zidane not only won three World Player of the Year awards but has appeared on the shortlist more times than any other player (three wins, one second place, two third places). This signifies Zidane's greatest quality - his consistent ability to perform in the biggest matches every year. Standing out amongst the best is what defined Zidane, crucially on the club and international level. This is the crux of my argument, what I have been sliding my way slowly towards, the final rationale - Zidane, unlike Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo or Messi, achieved the ultimate success on both the club and the international level.
His ability is comparable to the greats listed above, but his big game mentality sets him apart. There are numerous great strikers, who could be on this list, but Zidane was something else - the one player you wanted in the big game. That quality, that rarity, makes him special. If (like me), you value that natural gift, then it's simple - Zizou simply was the greatest ever.