The ball at his feet is a mere plaything, something to be conjured with, to be dribbled or dragged, stroked or struck, depending on his whim.
Others look on and can only marvel. No player, not since Pele, not since Diego Armando Maradona, has been able to do on a soccer field what Zinedine Zidane has done for a decade and a half.
And now it is almost over. Only 90 minutes remain. Perhaps a little more.
On Sunday, when France plays Italy in the World Cup final, the man they call “Zizou” will pull on the No. 10 shirt of Les Bleus one last time. The three-time FIFA world player of the year, the 1998 world champion and 2000 European champion is retiring. At 34, it is time.
Not that age has anything to do with it. There are younger players on the French team, quicker players, but it is Zidane who has carried France to the championship match at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
And so, when the referee blows the final whistle on Sunday night, it will mark not only the end of the World Cup but the end of an era.
No matter whether France wins or falls to Italy, Zidane will go out on top. Not that he has any doubts about the outcome, of course.
“Now that we are here, after all the effort we have made, we will try and bring it home,” Zidane said. “It won’t be easy, it will be difficult, but we have the weapons to do it and we have the will to do it.
“It will be good to lift the Cup again one more time. We really want to succeed.”
Zidane was not even supposed to be at Germany ’06. He retired two years ago, after France had been knocked out in the quarterfinals of Euro 2004 in Portugal. But France Coach Raymond Domenech persuaded Zidane and a couple of others to come back, building his team around six veterans of the 1998 campaign.
France sputtered and coughed like an out-of-tune Peugeot early in the tournament, then suddenly sparked to life when the knockout rounds began. It overcame favored Spain, knocked out defending champion Brazil and then shut out Portugal to reach the final.
It was Zidane, in elegant and imperious form, who led the way.
“When you see him play like that, it’s others who should be stopping, not him,” defender Lilian Thuram said after the Brazilians had been ousted.
Brazilian midfielder Kaka was even more complimentary.
“Unfortunately for us, he had a great match,” Kaka said. “He’s a truly great player. The fact that he’s retiring is a great loss for the world of football.”
Zidane plays in an almost detached manner, as if he were in a slightly different time zone, 15 seconds or so ahead of everyone else. He glides through games, his feints, his moves, his caressing of the ball this way and that, throwing opponents out of kilter.
And he does it all without a smile. The balding head, the brooding stare, the unshaven jaw, these are the trademarks of the man who, as the Marseille-born son of Algerian immigrants, learned his craft on the cobbled streets of La Castellane.
Even against Portugal in the semifinal, when he had to play with more caution because a yellow card would have caused him to be suspended for the final, Zidane was still on a different page.
“There’s nobody who treats the ball like he does,” Portuguese defender Miguel said.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, Portugal’s Brazilian coach, put it even better.
“In a split second, he can change the course of a game,” Scolari said. “It’s a shame age is overtaking him because, like with [Portuguese star Luis] Figo, we’d like to keep him playing another seven, eight, 10 or 20 years.
“We enjoy watching both of them. It’s like I say, the ball doesn’t cry when it’s at their feet.”
Domenech said Zidane had lifted his game in order not only to help France win but to go out still showing his best.
“I think he’s playing like this precisely because he is retiring,” the coach said during the knockout phase. “He can play with freedom and expression because he knows every game could be his last.
“He is a world champion. He affords the French public real dreams. That’s always the case with him. We knew we could count on him. He’s Zidane.”
Domenech said Zidane has purposely tried to exclude his impending retirement from the equation.
“It is the final of the World Cup,” Domenech said. “He doesn’t want things to be mixed up . . . The objective is to win.”
After Zidane, what then for France?
One answer could be midfielder Franck Ribery, who said he has been told by Zidane to play more calmly and not to dart about like a dog let off a leash.
“He must be right, but it’s hard for me to do that because that’s just the way I am,” the 23-year-old Ribery said.
“Playing with him is a dream and a privilege. His career is nearly over and mine is just starting. We won’t be playing together for long, so I have to make the most of it.”
Fans worldwide should view Sunday’s final the same way.
Begin text of infobox
A Zizou profile
Highlights of Zinedine Zidane’s soccer career:
* International caps: 107.
* International goals: 30.
* First cap: Aug. 17, 1994, vs. Czech Republic.
* Club history: Cannes (France), 1988-92; Girondins de Bordeaux (France), 1992-96; Juventus (Italy), 1996-2001; Real Madrid (Spain), 2001-present.
* National team championships: World Cup, 1998; European Championship, 2000.
* Club championships: Intercontinental Cup (with Juventus), 1996; Champions League (with Real Madrid), 2002.
* FIFA world player of the year: 1998, 2000, 2003.