Friday 30 December 2016, 09:08

Barthez: Zidane knows football

The date is 17 August 1994 and France are trailing 2-0 to Czech Republic in a Bordeaux friendly. On the bench, Fabien Barthez has just one cap to his name and Zinedine Zidane is awaiting his debut. With 63 minutes gone, the young playmaker enters the fray for Corentin Martins – and promptly turns the match on its head.

"It was his first appearance," recalls Barthez, reliving that landmark night for "He came on and immediately took control. He took responsibility for our play." He also weighed in with a sumptuous pair of goals: one netted from 25 metres with the outside of his left boot and the other a header planted high into the net.

Like everyone else, Barthez was left astonished by what he had just seen – and not for the last time. Plenty more breathtaking moments lay ahead before the two brothers in arms retired together in 2006, but Barthez has stopped being surprised by his old friend's exploits. Back in the present day, the former France goalkeeper is not in the least bit shocked to see Zidane flourish at the Real Madrid helm, nor to see his name on the list of candidates for The Best FIFA Men's Coach 2016.

"Everyone talks about success, but that's not how I see it," explains the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ winner. "It's not success in the sense that it hasn't just fallen into his lap. You have to go looking for luck and, when it appears, you have to know how to seize it. Like Cruyff, Maradona and Pele, Zidane was always able to make the difference in big games.

"Zidane knows football," adds Le Divin Chauve (the Divine Bald One). "He loves attacking play. Never forget that football is above all about enjoyment and attractive play. Some people tend to forget that, but not Zidane. I listen to him talk about it and watch him put it into action. I've seen that he relies on that notion of enjoyment and work." Those ingredients have clearly borne fruit too, with Zidane* *winning the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup – all in the space of less than a year.

Natural progression For Barthez, the former midfield maestro's switch to coaching was a natural progression. "Zidane has the qualities of a top-level sportsman, namely the ability to listen and observe," he says. "That's what he did throughout his career to become a great player, and that's what he's done to get where he is today. He never went around claiming he was going to coach Real Madrid. That's not his style.

"The fact that Didier Deschamps became a coach was even more predictable, given his nature as a leader of men who likes to speak up. Zidane was a leader on the pitch above all else. He said a few words from time to time, but it was when he had the ball at his feet that he took most responsibility for the team, although he did express himself more as time went on and he became a senior player."

Promoted to head coach at Madrid in January, Zizou had to display his man-management skills right from the start. Los Merengues were riven by crisis at the time, but the new man in charge soon calmed the storm and got everyone pulling in the same direction. "He's respected because he was a great player, but above all because he's a good person – sound and sincere," says Barthez.

"He'll always speak the truth, even if it causes pain, and that's important in terms of earning your players' trust. I don't say that because he's a friend. Looking at it objectively, he's been able to call upon and apply the same things that made him successful. When you play for fun, that breeds victories."

Santos the favourite Coaching one of the best teams in the world is not all about fun and victories, of course. The critics are always poised and the threat of dismissal is only ever a few poor results away – even if your name is Zidane. "His decision was based on his passion for football," explains Barthez, who turned to motorsports after his own retirement.

"As for the rest, he doesn't care. Media pressure, money… I'm sure that's all secondary to him and he doesn't even think about it. He's not doing this for the recognition. He's doing it out of pleasure alone and because of his love of the game. He also wants to pass something on, which is an important factor for him."

If Barthez is correct, Zidane puts little stock in personal awards – so he will surely forgive his friend for pinpointing another favourite for The Best FIFA Men's Coach 2016, with Claudio Ranieri and Fernando Santos the rival candidates. "It's wonderful that he's on the list to begin with," says Barthez, who – as a UEFA European Championship winner in 2000 – is backing the Portugal boss to prevail.

"I think it's more difficult to win a EURO than the Champions League. The standard is higher and it only happens every four years. Portugal fully deserved to win because they played as a team. The credit for that goes to the players on the pitch but also to the coach, who was able to lead them to victory."

So it does, but Zidane might just end up astonishing his old friend once again when the results are announced in Zurich on 9 January, 22 years after that famous night in Bordeaux.