Karim Ziani: The start of a Ligue 1 love affair
The 2006/07 season was a year of novelties for me. Zinedine Zidane’s succulent performances at the World Cup had reinvigorated my love for football, and it was a good time to reconcile myself with the sport.
This was mostly thanks to the Internet. On YouTube I looped hours of Zidane footage, and then rued the time I had wasted not watching his live performances. At the time, Algeria had just started their trek on the path to footballing relevance, and so I vowed to avoid making the same mistake and looked for ways to support the players.
Three-quarters of the Algerian national team had started their careers in Ligue 1, so I knew where to start. The French sporting magazine L’Équipe had devised a neat player rating system, which classed the top 5 defenders, midfielders and strikers in Ligue 1. When I saw that Sedan wingback Nadir Belhadj sat atop the rankings of defenders, my interest in French football was kindled. It has been burning ever since.
But instead of Ardennes and its tumbling terrain, the first match that I caught was a Saturday night encounter disputed by an experimental Sochaux side who were visiting the fortress that was the Stade Gerland in the early 21st century.
Les Gones were in the process of bulldozing their way to a sixth consecutive league title. I immediately numbed myself of any emotional investment and honed my eye on a pixie-sized midfielder for the visiting pretenders – Karim Ziani. Watching a match for one player is a peculiar experience. Your eyes are not always dragged to relevant gameplay; instead, you track off-the-ball runs, and try to telepathically will the ball over to one player. When said player receives a pass, time stops. Following a constructive action of play, you rejoice. Following a detrimental action of play, you berate his or her innocent teammates.
This was the viewing paradigm I employed that night. So, naturally, I let out a violent explosion of joy when Karim Ziani slid a through-ball into Alvaro Santos. The lanky Brazilian striker took a touch, stupidly glanced at the linesman to check the legality of the pass, and confidently slipped it under a hapless Gregory Coupet.
Twenty minutes later, Ziani was it again. This time he shouldered the goalscoring burden as he found himself 12 yards from the keeper on the penalty spot. He trotted up and put all of his small boot through the ball, powering it past Coupet.
I would go on to see Karim Ziani hit a dozen more penalties in his playing career. Each one was a carbon copy of his spot-kick vs. Lyon. Always a quick run-up followed by a hard and low shot which was directed to the keeper’s right.
Les Lionceaux were now up 3-1 and looked set to steal a win at the Stade Gerland – a near-impossible task at the time. But the reigning champions showed their resilience when they scored two goals in the final three minutes of the match. It was Juninho and an aging Sylvain Wiltord who had orchestrated the most improbable of comebacks.
But I didn’t care much for the classy duo and I was not impressed with OL, because Karim Ziani’s performance that night in Lyon captured my heart and stimulated my imagination. I immediately logged onto the Internet to consolidate what I had seen with corresponding match reports and player ratings.
That season Karim Ziani would lead Sochaux to a Coupe de France win. And I would go on to watch lovingly as he made his name in the playhouse that is Ligue 1.