My incredible exclusive Zidane interview

Men in Armani suits and Gucci sunglasses and the presence of Juve's entire first-team squad give a chat with ZZ an atmospheric background
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The Independent Football

The world's greatest footballer looks me squarely in the eyes and assures me, through an interpreter, that Italy's Serie A, which gets under way on Saturday, is the world's most demanding league. Serie A, he infers, knocks spots off the Premiership. He harbours no ambition, I am saddened to learn, to link up with Thomas Gravesen and the renascent Paul Gascoigne in the Everton midfield. The prospect of surging forward in support of David Unsworth does not, it seems, fire his imagination. If he has ever tossed and turned at night, dreaming of rubbing shoulders with Mick Lyons in the Goodison Park hall of fame, then he's not letting on.

The world's greatest footballer looks me squarely in the eyes and assures me, through an interpreter, that Italy's Serie A, which gets under way on Saturday, is the world's most demanding league. Serie A, he infers, knocks spots off the Premiership. He harbours no ambition, I am saddened to learn, to link up with Thomas Gravesen and the renascent Paul Gascoigne in the Everton midfield. The prospect of surging forward in support of David Unsworth does not, it seems, fire his imagination. If he has ever tossed and turned at night, dreaming of rubbing shoulders with Mick Lyons in the Goodison Park hall of fame, then he's not letting on.

I look at him closely. After all, it's not every day you stand toe to toe with a chap whose ability with a ball has been conservatively valued at £50m. Physically, he does not disappoint. There is intensity in his pale brown eyes, nobility in his aquiline nose, resolve in his firm jaw. This is the face that after the 1998 World Cup final was projected on to the Arc de Triomphe with the message "Merci Zizou!" A frisson of excitement runs up my spine. At long last, I have my interview with Zinedine Zidane, Zizou to his friends and all of France.

It is now late afternoon. The September sun has begun to lose its ferocity and is casting long shadows over the Stadio Communale, in the shabby outskirts of Turin. This is where the reputation of mighty Juventus was forged in the 1950s and 1960s, and reinforced in the 1970s and 1980s by legends such as Michel Platini, Marco Tardelli, Paolo Rossi, Claudio Gentile, Roberto Bettega and Dino Zoff. But in 1989 Juventus moved to a new stadium, the Delle Alpi, and the Stadio Communale became the team's training ground. It is a pretty ramshackle old place these days, a surprisingly tatty arena considering the scintillating talent that is daily on display. Over Zidane's shoulder, for example, I can see Alessandro del Piero andFilippo Inzaghi, strutting their stuff.

Yet when Zidane joins them - after finishing his in-depth interview with me - they don't strut quite so impressively. Zidane makes great players look ordinary even in a practice game watched by a few hundred fans. At one point he somehow contrives to trap the ball with his chest while running at full tilt, then three times changes direction as if operated by some kid mucking about with a remote-control unit. An urgent cry of "Zizou!" rings out. And without breaking his stride or seemingly even looking up he delivers a pinpoint 20-yard pass to his fellow-Frenchman David Trézéguet, who, being merely mortal, hammers the ball roughly 800 yards over the bar.

Never mind my exclusive interview with Zidane, it has been worthwhile coming to Turin merely to see him on the training ground. So I must thank Sportal, the dot.com company, for making the trip possible. Sportal are sponsoring Juventus shirts in the Champions' League this season, and told me, Sir Jimmy Savile-like, that they could fix it for me to meet a Juventus player, and talk to him, for up to 20 minutes, on a one-to-one basis. They couldn't promise anything, they said, but yes, it might very well be Zidane.

This beguiling prospect beguiles me out of bed at 5.30am - zzzzzz interrupted by ZZ, you might say. I get to Stansted Airport by 6.30am and arrive in Turin at 10am, local time. I am not due at the Stadio Communale until 3pm, so there is time to visit the Turin shroud, although after brief consideration I reject this opportunity in favour of a three-hour lunch in the Piazza San Carlo. After all, I am here to see Zinedine Zidane and one icon in a day is enough for anyone. Besides, I need to learn something about the history of Juventus and its unique place in Italian football.

Juventus was founded in 1897, and the team played in bright pink until 1903 when a club director born in Nottingham mercifully had a set of black-and-white Notts County shirts sent over from England. The driving force behind the club at that time was a splendidly named Swiss-Italian, Alfredo Dick, who, to the consternation of the Italians in the team, imported several fine foreign players. The fans appreciated their contribution, however, kicking off a tradition of foreign pin-ups later maintained by the Welshman John Charles (if not another, Welshman, Ian Rush, who was a resounding flop), and later still, Liam Brady, Platini and Zidane. But Dick fell out with Juventus, and left to found a rival club, Torino, taking his foreigners with him.

By the 1920s Turin was booming, thanks almost entirely to the thriving car manufacturer, Fiat. And in 1923 Fiat's founding family, the Agnellis, took control of Juventus. But the vast Fiat workforce did not want to pledge their leisure time to their employer. So to demonstrate their independence they supported Torino, creating an anomaly that continues to this day, namely that Juventus is the best-supported club in Italy, yet in Turin around 70 per cent of football fans follow Torino.

Juventus dominated Italian football in the 1930s, but in the 1940s Torino won the league title five times. By comparison, Juventus were also-rans. Then, in 1949, a plane crashed killing the entire Torino first team. With that awful tragedy, the balance of power began to shift. And by the late-1970s the shift looked irreversible, like the relationship between Manchester United and Manchester City today. Torino won their most recent league title in 1975-76. The following season they won 50 points out of a possible 60 and conceded only 14 goals, a remarkable achievement worthy of another title, yet, heartbreakingly, Juve pipped them with 51 points. And have been pipping them, or rather eclipsing them, ever since.

All this I learn over lunch in the Piazza San Marco, thanks largely to my new friend, Italian sportswriter Gabriele Marcotti, who also tells me of a phenomenon known as "sudditanza psicologica". This is the widespread conviction that the twin aristocrats of Italian football, Juventus and Milan, are never on the losing side of 50-50 decisions. The "sudditanza psicologica" holds that if Zidane runs at a defender and falls over, the defender will be deemed clumsy and the referee will award a free-kick. But if an opposing player runs at a Juve defender and falls over, the defender will be credited with a fine tackle. Again, there is a parallel with English football, but we don't have a name for it, or at least nothing more sophisticated than "those jammy gits Man Utd!"

Unlike United, however, who still trail Liverpool in terms of domestic trophies won, Juventus are indisputably the most successful club in the history of Italian football. Every other club, with the exception of Internazionale, have been relegated at least once. Not Juve. Indeed they have only once failed to qualify for Europe, in 1990-91, when coach Gigi Maifredi spearheaded his team with Roberto Baggio and a certain Paolo Di Canio.

According to Gabriele, Maifredi - now the coach of the Tunisian national team - remains a huge figure of fun in Italy. He was a former champagne salesman who guided humble Bologna from the Third Division to Serie A, and was then hired by the Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli, who thought his ideas might reinvigorate the club. Except that one of his ideas was the 4-2-4 formation, still considered the craziest experiment in the history of Serie A. With half of the season gone and Juve top of the league, however, it seemed to be working. But Juve finished eighth and Maifredi was sacked. The far more orthodox Giovanni Trapattoni took over, then Marcello Lippi, and in 1995-96 Juve won the European Cup for the second time. When Lippi resigned in February last year, Carlo Ancelotti succeeded him. The jury is still out on Ancelotti. On the last day of last season Juve were pipped to the league title by Lazio. For once, the genius of Zidane was not enough.

Ah yes, Zidane. The time is now approaching my no-holds-barred interview with the world's greatest footballer. I have arrived at the Stadio Communale in time for a press conference to announce the Sportal sponsorship. A marquee has been erected for the occasion, and arriving journalists are handed a leather document case embossed with the Juventus crest, a rather desirable freebie, which is more than can be said for the plastic key-ring I was once given at Filbert Street.

Indeed, there is a distinct Italian stylishness about the event, compounded by the presence of a dozen or so men in Armani suits and Gucci sunglasses, or it might be the other way round. It is not clear why they are here, but they look great. Then, unexpectedly, the first-team squad files in and sits down in the front row. I spot the familiar bald patch of Zinedine Zidane, the man who is soon to give me a full and frank interview.

First, though, I am ushered into a secondary press conference in a nearby hut, set up for the handful of British journalists present. We are introduced to the hollow-cheeked Juve goal-poacher Inzaghi, who talks to us via an interpreter, an attractive young Englishwoman called Vicky. One of the journos, Paul, represents an internet magazine. He asks whether Inzaghi has his own website? I ask whether Inzaghi considers Zidane to be the best player in the world? "He is a great player, he deserves all the praise he gets," says Inzaghi, who for some unaccountable reason then removes his shirt, revealing a skin-tight white sleeveless vest. Alongside him, Vicky goes an interesting shade of puce. It later transpires that she rather fancies Inzaghi. He reminds her of Johnny Depp.

Our next interviewee is the Juve and former Ajax goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who, being Dutch, speaks better English than everyone else in the hut. Paul asks him whether he has his own website. I ask him whether he considers Zidane to be the best player in the world? "Yes, he is so strong with the ball," says Van der Sar. "He can put it everywhere. He sees the game. He has a good free-kick. The only thing is, he is not scoring much goals. Sometimes he looks for somebody else with a better angle when it is better for him to shoot."

The group proceedings over, I am now ready for my own tête-à-tête with Zidane himself. I am taken over to where the great man is standing. Vicky materialises at his side. I ask about the relative merits of Serie A and the Premiership. "Italian football is better," he says. Then I ask whether he has ever come close to joining an English club. "There have been rumours, but nothing concrete," he says. I tell him about one particular rumour I have heard, that while he was at Bordeaux he went to Tottenham Hotspur for a trial only for then manager, Gerry Francis, to reject him as too wooden. Vicky translates my question into Italian and bewilderment clouds his handsome features "Who?" he says. "I don't think he has heard of Tottenham Hotspur," explains Vicky, apologetically.

At this juncture we are interrupted by a Juve official, one of the men in Armani suits. "I'm sorry, that was the last question, Zizou has to train now," he says, in English.Zidane smiles at me. "Bye bye," he says, also in English. He trots off to join his team-mates. Paul wanders over. "Erm, I don't suppose he said anything about his website?"

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