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Who is the best player in the world? I have been asked this constantly. I hate that. How on earth could I put all the players in the same line and pick one superior to others? Are we talking about the actual skills and qualities or how important the player is to his team or who has been the most successful? How can I compare different positions or players from different teams? I am often tempted just mumble meaningless nonsense round the whole question. After all it is a matter of an opinion anyway.
At least it used to be. However for a long time I havenít hesitated to give me verdict. And now after last weeks top game I am more convinced than ever. Even when there were many of the best players in the world at one game at the same time still there was one player above the whole game. Obviously I am not talking about Leitao and Boavista-Celtic here. Manchester United against Real Madrid was top entertainment, Zidane was better than that. There has been lately lot of superlatives said and written about Real and Zidane and I am not just trying to join here his admirers. I actually think he is the best footballer ever been in this universe.
Still Zidane has won the best player of the world title only once. I find that injustice to football, almost an insult. When you see some of these other nominated players on the same pitch with Zidane, they look ordinary. With all respect to great players like Beckham, Figo, Van Niistelroy and many others, it is this Frenchman with half a swim-cap who fills the pitch with his presence.
Ok, there is always Ronaldo with his speed, tricks and goals to steal some headlines. He has done some brilliant things in his young career and he is exceptional, but often he has only these sole moments of brilliance rather than being the maestro through the whole game. Ronaldo is like a trick in David Copperfields magic bag when Zidane is the whole show.
I find this Frenchman a complete player. He is strong, quick and has an amazing balance. Most of all he has a touch and vision made in heaven. He always makes himself available and has time with the ball, moves away from the opponent, chooses the best option and gives a killer pass. He makes it look so easy. Every touch and solution makes sense. He is not just skilful, his whole game is an appraisal to intelligence. You definitely get humiliated playing against him but almost as well while watching him playing.
It was 1995 at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. I was only a teenager to play at European cup against Bordeaux. I had heard that they had this promising young funny named player in their team. However he never showed up. Apparently he was too scared to play against young blond Finn. This is the version I like to tell to my mates. The truth is that they were already through to the next round and rested him. They went actually all the way to the final and he moved to Juventus after that. I got a yellow card in that game and continued my studies at the university.
I almost got my revenge at the same stadium three years later in the friendly against France. It was an even game that France won with a final minute offside goal. I tried to play very physical game to prevent Zidanes playmaking at midfield. Most of the time I was just chasing his shadow but overall he didnít have his most influential day. He was taken off before the end when he got tired and bit frustrated with all the tackles flying on him. Next day we both had made the headlines at the papers. He did it by playing, I only because I was actually hired to write a column to a local paper.
Two weeks from that game France started their successful World Cup, Zidane scored twice in the final and was chosen the best player. There we go, I told my mates. It was easy for him since he had the best team in the world with him, and mine hasnít ever even qualified to the World Cup. Hmmm, at least I can talk a good game.
I have played with and against some big names and highly rated players. Zidane is not the first or the last one that has outplayed me. However he has been the only player that made me just to raise my hands up afterwards and admit his superiority. When I play against or see other players, I always find lot of good in them but usually some weaknesses as well. I have never hesitated to play against any of them and I have always fancied myself to give a good game to anyone. Zidane was a different story.
I love watching him playing. Although his initials ZZ suggests of sleeping he plays it sure that the audience is hypnotised. I would pay a lot of money if I could see him playing more often. He makes me wonder how can he be so good? How does he do that? What has he done to become so good?
In a way I hate him. I have trained hard and I consider I have reached a reasonable level already. For every ball and situation I always work hard to get something out of it. He has mastered them all. It looks easy and it probably is easy for him. He doesnít panic. He plays a different game than most of us. Sometimes I hate to see how perfect one player can be. It just reminds me how ordinary I am, and how much better footballer can actually be.
During my career I have had my sole moments of zidanenism, the days and situation that everything went right. Most of the time though, I am just playing Riihilahti. At school I thought I found the way to true football mastery after I did this NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) course. NLP is very interesting and useful system that teaches many things about human behaviour and ways to achieve different kind of results in life.
So I decided to try this exercise to become a best player in the world. My task was to first watch Zidane play, then put myself into his role and picture myself doing the same things and choices, mentally convince myself that I was Zidane, and then play like one.
So I had done all the preparation and mental work and I was actually quite buzzing about it, acting I was something. Then I received the first ball in the training. I tried that fancy turn a la Zidane, where he roles the ball on inside of his feet all the time while he turns. I almost fell over. Hmm, not quite Zidane yet, still very Riihilahti like.
However I didnít let that get to me and gave myself a new chance. I got into the mood again and almost started to speak fluent French and everything. Next thing I knew was when my outside of the feet cross-ball shanked severely and the ball was probably never found from the forest close to that training ground. I realised that no matter how good this NLP system is, there will never be any z:s in my name. I should have just listened the wisdoms of my old man. He used to say KISS, meaning Keep It Simple Stupid. After all football is a better game when I do the defending and Zidane does the football part, not the other way around.
Zidanes standards are never going to be within my reach. Luckily for me there is only one Zidane. And in each team there canít be too many anyway. Football team needs also other kinds of players. My job is different. I am the camel that carries water to these exceptional ones. I should try to compare myself to likes of Makelele rather than Zidane. He is great as well but plays more like in human terms to me. So maybe that is my next NLP exercise.