Where are they now? Seven players dubbed ‘the next Zinedine Zidane’
Such is the legacy left by Zinedine Zidane on French football, the most promising players produced by the country often have to live with the pressure of being labelled ‘the next Zidane’.
Of course, there is and only ever will be one Zizou, and former Liverpool and Arsenal men are among those who have understandably failed to live up to that tag.
We’ve taken a look back at seven players compared to the great man at a young age, and how they subsequently fared in their respective careers.
Thanks to his Algerian heritage and performances in France’s Under-17 World Cup victory, Meghni was given the nickname “petit Zidane”.
Before he had even made his senior debut, Meghni swapped France for Italy by leaving Cannes for Bologna. But he failed to find any consistency in his performances for either Bologna or Lazio, and he was an unused substitute in the latter’s 2009 Coppa Italia victory – the main honour of his career.
After switching his international allegiance to Algeria in 2009, Meghni moved to Qatar two years later and retired after leaving Algerian outfit CS Constantine in 2017.
“I don’t make comparisons with Zidane lightly,” said Gerard Houllier upon signing Cheyrou for Liverpool from Lille, seconds before making quite a grand comparison between the two players.
“Bruno has the same kind of touch and style that Zidane has. There’s a lot of similarities between the two when they’re on the ball.
“The difference is that Zidane is 30-years-old and has a wealth of experience while Bruno is 24 and playing abroad for the first time.”
That didn’t turn out to be the only difference. Cheyrou made 48 largely unimpressive performances in all competitions for the Reds before Houllier was binned off and the midfielder followed suit, joining Bordeaux and Marseille on loan and playing out the majority of his career back in Ligue 1.
To add insult to injury, Cheyrou wasn’t even the best midfielder in his family, with younger brother Benoit winning a French title with Marseille to go with four domestic cups and three consecutive seasons in Ligue 1’s team of the year.
In January 2022, the former Liverpool man joined Lyon to work as a scout and technical advisor.
Anthony Le Tallec
Houllier should have known better than compare Cheyrou with Zidane given only a year earlier he had signed another player struggling to live up to such a tag.
Le Tallec had arrived in the summer of 2001 from Le Havre alongside his cousin Florent Sinama Pongolle amid plenty of expectation in France after the duo had starred in the country’s victory at that summer’s Under-17 World Cup.
“Even then there was a suspicion that Blanc, Barthez, Zidane and company were merely laying the foundations of a dynasty,” wrote Richard Williams in The Guardian.
The duo were immediately loaned back to Le Havre for two years and upon their return it was notable Houllier attempted to reduce some of the expectation, although he still couldn’t help himself: “It will be better for both him and Florent to play in the reserves this season so they can get used to English football,” adding: “But in the future they will both be seen as important signings. It is only a matter of time, I can promise you that.”
Le Tallec ultimately scored once in 32 outings for Liverpool and failed to inspire during underwhelming loan spells at Saint-Etienne, Sunderland, Sochaux and Le Mans, although he did provide a crucial assist for Luis Garcia in a surprise start against Juventus in the Reds’ run to Champions League glory in 2005.
After dropping down the French leagues, spells in Greece and Romania followed. In September 2019, at the age of 34, he signed for French amateur outfit Annecy, before finally calling time on his twenty-year playing career in May 2021.
Arguably the player who had to deal with the tag more than any other due to the similarities in his playing style with Zidane, Gourcuff was an ethereal playmaker who captured France’s imagination with his early displays for Rennes, earning a move to AC Milan.
In two years at the San Siro, Gourcuff found displacing Kaka understandably difficult, but there were ominous signs of what was to come amid public criticism of his attitude from Carlo Ancelotti and Paolo Maldini.
But upon his return to France with Bordeaux, Gourcuff appeared revitalised, winning the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award after inspiring the side to a league and cup double, with L’Equipe anointing him “Le Successeur” to Zidane.
“I felt ill when Zidane retired; watching Gourcuff has cured me,” were the words of Christophe Dugarry.
But an embarrassing 2010 World Cup saw Gourcuff sent off after 25 minutes and his attitude once again came under scrutiny after he failed to shine following a €22million move to Lyon where form and fitness deserted him.
Gourcuff left Dijon in January 2019 after injury restricted him to just eight appearances. According to reports in the French media, the former playmaker has taken up tennis – and is pretty damn good at it.
Another player to catch the eye after starring for France’s Under-17s, the side’s manager Philippe Bergeroo said of Nasri after their triumph in the 2004 European Championships: “His fluency in possession reminds me of Zidane.”
Former Marseille coach Albert Emon added: “Nasri has the same ability to read the game as Zizou.”
Similarities were drawn thanks to the parallels in their upbringings, raised in the tough northern regions of Marseille to Algerian parents.
Ahead of his move to Arsenal in 2008, Nasri was keen to play down the comparisons: “I think people were too quick to make the comparison. I was 17 and just starting out when I heard people calling me the future Zidane. I was shocked but I quickly detached myself from all that.”
You don’t need us to tell you Nasri didn’t live up to the tag, despite moments of undoubted quality. After reuniting with former Manchester City team-mate Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht, the midfielder’s 2019-20 campaign was decimated by injury – it was there that he decided to call time on his playing career.
“For those of you who discovered Karim Benzema yesterday against Manchester United, get used to seeing him more often, as he is France’s best hope to make us forget Zinedine Zidane,” wrote Clement Andreau for Bleacher Report after Benzema had caught the eye with a goal for Lyon against the Red Devils in a Champions League knockout tie.
While not quite as alluring as Zidane, Benzema has a medal collection to surpass that of Zizou, and indeed much of his success at Real Madrid has come under his management.
One black mark against the striker’s career will always be the controversy surrounding his international career, which saw him miss out on France’s 2018 World Cup triumph, but he returned to action for Les Bleus at Euro 2020.
Now into his mid-thirties, Benzema is producing arguably the best football of his career. A richly-deserved Ballon d’or is imminent.
“When he came here they called him the next Zidane. He isn’t in the same league as Zidane yet because he was a genius, but one day he could be up there because he’s got that ability” – Harry Redknapp.
“Even as a young 16, 17-year-old when he came to Spurs, I was just like, ‘We have found Zidane, we have found him, we’ve got Zidane, I can’t believe it, we’re going to be unbelievable!'” – Jermaine Jenas.
“I am hoping to become that but it is my agent’s opinion. Other people have said this as well. I just want to reach that level” – Adel Taarabt.
Well, it was fun while it lasted, and nobody expected to see him transformed into a defensive midfielder at Benfica.