Ten years ago today, France and Brazil faced off in the quarter-finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Entering the match, Brazil were favorites as the defending World Cup champions, while France were led by Zinedine Zidane, who was on his last swan song as a player. What transpired during the 90 minutes was something to behold, and the aftermath might have been even more astonishing.
Entering the tournament, Brazil’s last defeat in a World Cup was in the 1998 final when they lost to France. They bounced back to win the 2002 World Cup while also winning the 2004 Copa America and the 2005 Copa Confederations Cup, lifting every trophy in their path.
The team had an abundance of talent, led by reigning two-time world player of the year Ronaldinho. The midfield also had Kaka, Enderson, Ze Roberto, defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva, and free kick master Juninho. The defense had a steady backline of Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Lucio, Juan, and Cicinho. While Brazil has never had a real world-class goalkeeper, Dida was as close as they had gotten.
Their front line consisted of a threesome that was as scary as any in the world, with legend Ronaldo leading the attack and quick dribbling wizard Robinho playing up top at the age of 22. Maybe the scariest player at the time though was Adriano. Nicknamed “The Train”, no one, not even Ronaldo, had Adriano’s combination of size, speed, agility, and power. He had the ability to score with any part of his body, and was part wrecking ball part ballerina.
Brazil did win all three of their group games as well as beating Ghana in their first knockout round match 3-0. Leading up to the game against France, they had scored 12 goals and allowed just one, although they still had yet to fully click on the field (scary thought, I know). They did lack that one spark that had become accustomed to Brazilian soccer, but the expectation at the time was that with such talent, and talent that had been playing together well in the last years, they would be able to get it together.
France, on the other hand, had a terrible 2002 World Cup, and the conclusion of a disappointing Euros in 2004 saw a number of their 1998 World Cup stars retire. France continued to struggle during 2006 qualification, which lead the likes of Zidane, Lilian Thuram, and Claude Makelele to come back from international retirement.
In the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, France would struggle all throughout, drawing their first two matches and winning their last one with a suspended Zidane, granting them a second-place finish in the group behind Switzerland. They came to life though in their Round of 16 clash with Spain, emerging as 3-1 winners. You have to remember though, at the time Spain still had the reputation of an underachieving team that couldn’t win important games.
Thus, given to us was a rematch of the 1998 World Cup final between Brazil and France, this time in the quarter-final stage in Germany. Seven players who played in that final participated in this match, but with all their prime talent Brazil had looked like the favorites.
What transpired during that match, though, was nothing short of magical. Zidane had just turned 34 and had said that the World Cup would be his last games as a professional before going into retirement. He was still playing at a high level and showed that class that only a few in the world of soccer will ever posses. The thinking for many was that Ronaldinho was the star entering the game – as expected, as he was of course the two-time player of the year and had recently been getting the better of Zidane when Barcelona and Real Madrid faced off.
But the stars of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ze Roberto were completely neutralized as Zidane almost single-handedly ran the game from the midfield position. He controlled the tempo and time after time would do the most subtle and beautiful movements to create space for himself and his teammates. Words can’t describe the ease with which he made the Brazilians look like second class footballers.
The game itself was played heavily in the midfield and didn’t lend itself to many chances. It was a Zidane move that would lead to a set piece and a beauty of a pass to teammate Thierry Henry, who would thump home the sole goal (great defending Roberto Carlos) in France’s 1-0 win. Brazil had no answer, no counter to the show Zidane put on that night. Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo, they were all simply outclassed by Zizou.
By now, everyone remembers Zidane’s final moments as a professional when he got himself a red card for a headbutt in the finals. But back to the quarter-final match: it wasn’t just at the ease with which Zidane moved, passed, dribbled, and controlled the game, it was that it was against Brazil, a Brazil team that was clicking at an incredibly fast rate leading up to the tournament and boasted Ronaldinho at his 26-year-old prime. Kaka was still just 24, and Ronaldo was still in his prime at 29 (albeit a heavily-injured Ronaldo).
It was also the fact that Zidane was doing this at 34 years of age. To put that into perspective, both Kaka and Adriano are both 34 years old now in 2016. Kaka plays in the MLS for Orlando and Adriano plays for Miami United.
What is really telling about this match is the aftermath for Brazil. Since that match, Brazil hasn’t been the same. They haven’t had the same spirit and zest (or Juga Bonito) that everyone was accustomed to watching. Zidane completely took the Brazilian soccer souls that day.
Ronaldinho never sniffed another player of the year title again nor would he be at same level as before that tournament. He would have his moments of course, but at 26, he would never reach those levels again. Again, while Zidane at 34 was taking Brazil apart, Ronaldinho at 34 was playing for Atletico Mineiro of Brazil. Yes, you can say that he helped AM win a Copa Libertadores, but Zidane was still playing for Real Madrid at that age. It was also the lack of consistency that Ronaldinho struggled with. No longer was he game in and game out the best player on the field, let alone the best player on the planet.
It was almost as if Zidane had killed the spirit of Brazilian soccer. In the 10 years since that game Brazil have only (I say only because the standards of Brazil are different from any other team) won the Copa America in 2007, and the Confederations Cup in 2009 and 2013. They lost to Holland in the quarter-finals in South Africa in 2010. In 2012 they lost the gold at the London Olympics with a team that was hoping to win their first gold in Olympic soccer and at the same time build a squad for the World Cup in 2014 in their home nation. They were embarrassed in the semifinals and third-place match of the World Cup in 2014 on home soil, and most damagingly, have been ultimately lacking a soccer identity.
The likes of Robinho and Adriano never materialized to become the type of players everyone had such high hopes for and just recently Brazil fired head coach Dunga for a second time after failing to reach the knockout stage of the Copa America Centenario.
Maybe it is just a coincidence Brazil that has struggled as a whole since that game. Or maybe the outcome of that match has had a deeper and more damaging effect than anyone could have predicted. What is known is that Brazil hasn’t been the same since July 1st, 2006.