This article first appeared in Issue 8 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015 [NB This article has been left in its original form and has not been updated to reflect recent managerial changes]
In his essay ‘La mélancolie de Zidane’, Jean-Philippe Toussaint surmises on the frustration that drove Zinédine Zidane to head-butt Marco Materazzi in the 110th minute of the 2006 World Cup Final. He writes: “Zidane is unable to score, he can no longer bear his team-mates, his opponents, he can no longer bear the world or himself.”
Zidane’s frustration exploded in an expression of unbridled violence: a head-butt, unlike anything anyone had ever witnessed from a player of such great, expressionless reserve. Funny, then, that he’d found himself in the exact situation before, under a greying German sky, in the very same stadium. Only on that occasion it wasn’t a loose-lipped Italian in his way; instead it was a humble Scotsman. It was the now-Aston Villa manager, Paul Lambert.
On 28th May, 1997, Borussia Dortmund played Juventus in the Champions League final, held at Munich’s Olympiastadion, on a night when Lambert stymied the flow of Zidane’s football like a diet of deep fried Mars bars to a coronary artery.
The game began in the Italians’ favour. Playing with their devastating combination of talent, tactical awareness, and unconditional submission, they set up camp on the edge of Dortmund’s box while their attacking triumvirate of Zidane, Alen Boksić and Christian Vieri fired shots high, wide and onto the running track.
This was Marcello Lippi’s team. His arrival at Juventus in 1994, as part of the Agnelli brothers’ enforced austerity programme, heralded a new emphasis on youth. La Vecchia Signora’s old boys were sold. Four of them – Jurgen Kohler, Paulo Sousa, Stefan Reuter and Andreas Möller – would line up in the yellow hoops against their former guv’nor that night in Munich.
Ottmar Hitzfeld was at the helm in Dortmund – a club with no playboy image to shed and no pretensions to attend to. He paced his technical area in his traditional beige trench coat as he watched his Dortmund side battle it out. His insistence on deploying Matthias Sammer as a sweeping centreback, like a tennis player defending deep behind the baseline, proved crucial in keeping Vieri at bay.
Ahead of the back line was Lambert, who orbited Möller, Dortmund’s playmaker, like a moon and collected more than a few pockmarks from an asteroid field of Zebre defenders. Möller had occupied Zidane’s position at Juventus just four years earlier, and had been part of the team that demolished Dortmund 6-1 in the 1993 Champions League semi-final. Now, though, he was Die Schwarz Gelben’s soft-shoed number 10.
Dortmund’s foothold in the game came from a corner. Möller’s crisp in-swinger was pushed out by Angelo Peruzzi; a nod from a Juve head dropped the ball into the path of Paul Lambert, who twisted his body to launch a wild diagonal back into the box. Hitzfeld allowed himself a smile as Karl-Heinz Riedle met the cross with his chest and drove home into the far right corner: his Scottish utility man had followed his orders play-for-play.
In an online interview before the 2013 final, Lambert told Dortmund fans:
“On the Tuesday [before the final], we were practising in the stadium for training, and I remember Ottmar said to me: ‘Tomorrow night when we try and have the ball, look for the diagonal ball,’ because he thought Juventus were maybe not so strong. The first thing in my head was to make the pass and luckily the ball went to Karl and then… Eins – Nil.”
Lambert began his professional career in his native Scotland at St Mirren, before being transferred to Motherwell. When Dortmund played Motherwell in the 1995-96 Champions League campaign, Hitzfeld had at his disposal a phalanx of attacking experience that rolled over the North Lanarkshire team with ease.
In the final stretch, however, they collapsed like long distance runners, jelly-legged and disparate, losing 2-0 to Ajax at the Westfalenstadion. Lambert had created Motherwell’s only opportunity against Dortmund at Fir Park, and in doing so had convinced Hitzfeld that he could form the spine his own tired-looking team needed to make the finish line next time around. The performance against Dortmund had been indicative of the player Lambert was: technical when called upon, and gritty throughout.
Hitzfeld’s Scottish acquisition paid dividends in the Champions League the following season. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but his performance in the semi-final, second-leg at Old Trafford – when, in the dying minutes, he lunged to deny Eric Cantona a chance on goal – was of the kind that evokes respect from even the game’s most hard-willed achievers. Roy Keane, who would later work alongside Lambert at Aston Villa, watched on from the bench that night and reserved his praise for Lambert until years later, singling him out in the first half of his autobiography as Dortmund’s lodestar anchor in midfield.
Not five minutes had passed since Riedle’s first of the final when Juventus gave away another cheap corner; again, Möller stepped up to put it in. Peruzzi failed to come out and parry, mindful of the way they had been undone before. Instead, Riedle surged forward and met the cross head on. Zwei – Nil.
Thus began an embattled second half. Alessandro Del Piero replaced Sergio Porrini, while Zidane played with the weight of his name on his shoulders. Juventus poured forward, hitting the bar twice, and Del Piero collected a consolation goal before Lars Ricken came on to finish the game with a superb chip that also happened to be his first touch. Drei – Eins.
The game was over in a flash and Zidane was left staring, hands on hips, at a Scotsman smiling back at him: thumbs up; ‘Good game’. That’s the way Lambert played; Zidane was a playmaker, but his team-mates were one and the same.
“At that time he was probably one of the best players in the world. I remem- bered being told that Zidane was going to be their playmaker… and I had to try and stop him. I still have a laugh with Zorcy [Michael Zorc] regarding the game and yeah [he was a] fantastic player but I played with fantastic players in the Dort- mund team so it was okay.”
The press that followed talked of the Old Boys beating up the Old Lady in Munich, but it was Lambert’s performance that gave the match its real narrative. For, at its core, this had been a battle between muddy boots and good looks, intricate footwork and intuitive awareness, the French and the Scots – in Germany, against the Italians.