When Zinedine Zidane joined then-Champions League holders Juventus in 1996, he must have thought he would be a part of a European dynasty.
The Serie A giants had just seen off Louis van Gaal’s exciting Ajax side in the European Cup final, and although they had just finished runners-up to AC Milan in the league, players such as Zidane’s compatriot Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte and Alessandro Del Piero, along with a world-class manager in Marcello Lippi, would surely ensure that the golden age of Juve was only beginning.
So when the then-24-year-old moved to Turin from Bordeaux, he must have thought that becoming a European champion was to follow.
What followed, frankly, was two years of agonising heartbreak. Having halted Ajax’s attempt to become the first side to defend the Champions League in its new form (a feat that has still not been achieved more than two decades later), the Bianconeri would navigate their way to the final in each of the next two seasons – only to lose out on both occasions, to Borussia Dortmund and Saturday night’s opponents Real Madrid.
Zidane started in both, but could only watch as his opponents lifted that trophy aloft, looking down at his runner-up medals and thinking about what might have been.
Granted, he recovered from the pain of 1998 to win the World Cup with France on home soil later that summer, but the glory of celebrating with the Champions League trophy continued to elude him.
Frustratingly for the playmaker, the longer he stayed at Juve, the less likely he became to win the trophy. Lippi’s side were knocked out of the competition by Manchester United in 1999, while they could only qualify for the UEFA Cup the following season.
So when the opportunity came to join Real Madrid for a then-world record fee of €75m arose in 2001, he knew he had to take it. He knew that this was his chance, and he was vindicated in doing so when it was his winner, in of the greatest Champions League goals ever, saw off the spirited challenge of Bayer Leverkusen and delivered the one medal missing from his prestigious collection.
Juventus have reached two finals since, the most recent of which was in 2015, and twice more they have come away with the sting of defeat in their eyes.
Which, surely, makes it all the worse for Zidane as looks to be a key component in continuing barren run, of being a driving force in making it five consecutive Champions League final defeats for the Old Lady. He still has great affection for his old side and made it quite clear that he would not enjoy having to face them, but insisted that divided loyalties would not be an issue:
“For sure it is special because [Juventus] was a very important club for me as a player. It is a club that also gave me everything.
“Now, though, I am with Real Madrid, the club of my life and it will be a great final.
I can’t do anything about it now. They have got to the final and deserve to be there, as do we.”
He also cheered Juve on as they faced Barcelona in the final two years ago – though as a Madridista that would have been a requirement anyway.
Nonetheless, while it may pay him to step over Juventus and add to their misery on his way to another piece of silverware, he can see past that. Ha can see right through Juventus to the prospect of creating a piece of Champions League history. He can be part of something that he came so close to achieving in Turin, to doing something that even the great Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho could not do. He can immortalise himself as the manager of the first side to successfully retain the Champions League title.
For a man whose first real introduction to the European Cup was sustained heartbreak, it would be quite the turnaround to become synonymous with its ultimate success story. It would also give rise to the argument that, should Real win on Saturday night, that Zidane would have to be considered among the greatest managers ever. If the separating criteria is Champions League titles then he would equal Pep, Jose, Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson, behind only Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley.
Granted, the limitless resources available at Real should, in theory, make it easier than at most clubs, but the fact of the matter is that Zidane will do something unprecedented if he brings that trophy back to the Bernabeu. What’s more, he’ll have done it his way, shying away from expensive signings last summer in favour of a, dare it be said, Barcelona-like approach of trusting the club’s academy players, the likes of Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez. That’s true management, and the core of what would make this year’s triumph far more noteworthy than last year or 2014.
Sentiment and empathy for Juventus can wait until Sunday morning, victory is the only thing that is important in Cardiff. Zidane was brought in by Juventus twenty years ago to in the hope that a barren run in Europe was not to happen, and now he must ensure that it continues.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we take a look at a big ten days for Martin O’Neill’s side as well as the usual review of the latest League of Ireland action.