Return of the King

February, 22, 2007
Considering all the negativity in some quarters over the $10 million or so annual salary that David Beckham will be receiving to suit up for the L.A. Galaxy this summer, one can only imagine that those same pessimists are having a field day with the rumors that legendary (and retired) French star Zinedine Zidane is contemplating renewing his career in MLS -- provided that his prospective employers meet his asking price of at least $15 million per year.

Expect renewed proselytizing about how Zidane's signing will doom MLS to follow down the debt-ridden and financially irresponsible footsteps of the defunct NASL. However, since the Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls are the teams said to be heavily in pursuit, financial considerations aren't really a huge concern given the deep pockets of both teams' monetary backing.

The bigger issue is just how serious Zidane is about playing in America and whether or not he's actually worth the money. Call Zidane the anti-Beckham if you will -- his signing definitely won't generate the type of media and pop culture buzz across all platforms that Beckham's did (although his infamous head butt in the World Cup final will continue to be a drawn-out theme, at least initially), but he offers a lot more substance and credibility on the field.

In sharp contrast to Beckham, Zidane is a name that will finally resonate with the hardcore avid soccer fan in the U.S. that so far has refused to tune in or pay attention to MLS. Unlike Becks, Zidane was indeed at one point undeniably the world's best player and although no longer the player he was in his prime, he still has the capacity to crank it up and control the tempo, as we found out in the World Cup. As for his playing impact in MLS, it's a pretty safe bet that a motivated Zidane will likely lead his team to the MLS Cup provided he stays healthy.

Will he sign? It probably boils down to three factors:

1. Money -- regardless of the usual athlete spiel about how money isn't an important factor, we all know it is. Zidane's advisers have said that Zidane won't even countenance beginning talks unless they start at the $15 million per season range.

2. His legacy -- we've seen how some great athletes have chosen to risk/spoil what had been perfect career endings to unretire (witness Michael Jordan coming back and giving up his dream legacy of winning a championship with his last shot in the NBA). This being the case, one can only assume that Zidane can't be happy that his last play in soccer was the head butt on Marco Materazzi that got him red-carded in the World Cup final. Maybe the legacy of finishing his career in MLS isn't the most romantic notion either, but it's got to be better than what he's currently remembered for.

3. His wife Veronique -- at the end of the day, even after taking both the above factors into account, Zidane's decision might well rest on how his wife feels about living in America. His move from Juventus to Real Madrid in 2001 was in large part due to his wife's desire at the time to live in Spain.

If Zidane does sign with MLS (and it's obviously still a huge long-shot at this point), MLS will have pulled off two of the greatest coups in soccer history in one offseason. In Beckham, it already has the most marketable player and in Zidane it would have one of the greatest in the game's history with arguably the greatest legacy in terms of winning.

If you were to draw up a wish list scenario of any three players that MLS could have, those two would be it, with Ronaldinho probably the third. Two out of three isn't half bad and even just a few months ago appeared to be just a pipe dream.

Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to in 2005.