James Lawton: Single shot that defines the genius of Zidane

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The Independent Football

Only a miracle of resilience could have carried the brave and impressively organised Bayer Leverkusen team beyond the impact of Zinedine Zidane's astonishing goal for Real Madrid at Hampden Park.

The miracle didn't happen and really you knew instinctively it wouldn't the moment Zidane inflicted his genius on the European Cup final. You couldn't argue with Muhammad Ali or Jack Nicklaus in their time, no more than you can Tiger Woods today. Zidane marked out such territory for himself as the Glaswegian sky wept, presumably with joy.

Beside the deed of Zidane, all else in a taut and at times superbly crafted game shrivelled almost to nothing.

The deepest beauty of his goal was that the sheer ambition of it was so naked even as the ball from Roberto Carlos travelled in a high arc to where the tall Frenchman was shifting the balance of his body to produce that withering left-footed volley.

Laughably, Zidane's left foot is supposed to be a much lesser weapon than his right. It meant that apart from winning Real's ninth European Cup, Zidane's goal made another claim on the history of the game. It defined the greatness of a footballer, who, while being freely granted the status of the world's best player, had never quite staked out a clear point of comparison with the legends of the game.

Zidane had greatness within him, but he was also enigmatic. He didn't mark out his terrain. He didn't perform a classic midfielder's role. He moved too far forward for that. He drifted and struck, though sometimes not frequently enough for some tastes. He won a World Cup for France, with his head, but some of his performances on the way were less convincing. He had mesmerising moments for France two years ago in the European Championship, but he was pretty much anonymous in the Rotterdam final when the Italians could claim to have been unlucky. He left Juventus unfulfilled, an emperor in waiting who left the Stadio delle Alpe before due cause for a coronation.

On Wednesday, however Zidane touched perfection – and joined the highest category of those players who, because of the sheer scale and individual nature of their talent, can only be judged by ultimate standards.

The players in mind are Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, John Charles, George Best, Jimmy Greaves, and Bobby Charlton. Not Pele? Not Di Stefano or Puskas, Eusebio, Van Basten, Denis Law or Romario? No, because all these superb players, among whom Pele shines most brightly because of his humility and instinctive understanding that football's greatest demand is that you serve the team, depended to various degrees on the work of their team-mates. Their talent was fantastic but it knew its limits.

The game played by that first group was beyond such restraint.

Cruyff once beat England at Wembley without crossing the halfway line. Yet he was also the scorer of exquisite individualistic goals. As a teenager, Best beat Benfica on his own at the Estado da Luz. Charles entranced Italy with the extraordinary scale of his ability. Greaves made goals from nothing; he created them, ghost-like, and moved as though on a cushion of air. His great contemporary, Law, did not move nearly so well on the ball. He was the master of deadly intervention while Greaves created his own production line of mayhem. When Charlton had wind in his sails, he plotted his own course for goal, a one-man war galleon.

The mark of a great goal is how quickly it provokes the question: who else could have scored that?

Could anyone else have scored Maradona's second goal which so shattered England in 1986? Could anyone else have generated that passion, that wild conviction that he could run by an entire defence and have the power and the supreme balance not only to do so, but to make it look so easy, so natural? No, that was Maradona's moment and it is one not likely to be surpassed in the annals of the World Cup. Not likely, but who knows, now, what lurks in the ambitions of Zinedine Zidane, because if he couldn't have scored Maradona's goal in the Azteca, could Maradona have produced the one that went in on Wednesday night? No, football must give to Maradona and Zindane what is their's, uniquely, and on the eve of the World Cup it must pray that the latter stays both healthy and inspired.

He went to Hampden Park under the weight of history created by the surreal brilliance with which his Real predecessors put down Eintracht Frankfurt on that same ground 42 years earlier. Inevitably there were grainy re-runs before Wednesday's game. We saw the lightning pace of Francisco Gento, the balance and skill of Di Stefano, and the blistering firepower of Puskas's left foot. But as we settled down for something perhaps fine but irretrievably less, we undervalued the capacity of Zidane to make his own fantasies.

We saw that there is still a supreme standard in the world's game, and when Zidane's volley flew home it detonated so many memories. It reminded you that the greatest glory in sport is the certainty which genius brings to the action, and the point could not have been re-made with more beauty or power. Bayer Leverkusen deserved more from their season. Right to the end of the world's greatest club competition they played with spirit and intelligence and until Zidane found his vein of gold it would have been a bold man to back against them.

But for the moment, and perhaps forever, they are a footnote in the history of the game. This week they became victims of the best that football can offer.