The Frenchman, now coach at Barcelona’s great Clasico rivals, had an early taste of La Pulga’s skills as Madrid were destroyed 3-0 back in 2005
At just 18 that phenomenon played his heart out, inspiring another of his monstrous team-mates to one of the best games of his life. The boy Lionel Messi and an unstoppable Ronaldinho were too much for any team in their way, and were already making history for Barcelona.
Forced to bend his game to the whims of a rigid system imposed by Vanderlei Luxemburgo, meanwhile, Zinedine Zidane was playing on the wing outside Uruguayan Pablo Garcia. He was obliged to pull his weight defensively and enjoyed precious little time with the ball at his feet. Real Madrid’s sole job in the Clasico of November 19, 2005 was to stop Messi at any cost, with plenty of fouls included, as the teenager surged forward daringly at every opportunity, with little respect for his illustrious elders.
Alongside Messi and the dizzying Ronaldinho the capital club also had to deal with Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroonian striker who loved to make defenders’ lives a living hell. It was too much for Madrid, a nightmare on the pitch.
What most stands out from that memorable game is Ronaldinho’s masterclass, but there was another moment that was to be somewhat overlooked. Zidane must still remember his actions 33 minutes into the game when he chopped Messi down with a blatant kick as the Argentine flew towards Iker Casillas’ net.
The foul was not met with a booking from referee Eduardo Iturralde, but it provoked the ire of Messi’s Barca team-mates. With Xavi at the head they demanded a stronger punishment, while Zidane, who would hang up his boots at 34 six months later following the World Cup, stayed mute. He did not even offer an apology, nor glance at the man he had left sprawling on the floor.
Barcelona were too good that day, and ran out 3-0 winners at the Santiago Bernabeu – Ronaldinho scoring one of the greatest goals of all time and earning a standing ovation from the home crowd. It was one of the first signs that the Catalans were coming for the world of football, heralding a golden decade of dominance led by the irrepressible Messi.
Obliged – or perhaps sincerely convinced – to say Cristiano Ronaldo is the best in the world, Zidane prefers to dodge any direct questions over Messi. But in truth, he found out earlier than many about the Argentine’s exceptional ability. Ever since he was forced to cut the youngster down in 2005, he has watched Messi go on to stake his claim as one of the most talented footballers the game has ever seen, often at the expense of his beloved Madrid.