Football: Zidane completes the French eclipse

Ian Ridley assesses the talents of a man who has stalked the career of Cantona
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Alex Ferguson had only the odd regret, he said last autumn on celebrating his 10 years at Old Trafford: that the Double team of 1993- 94 could not play together, pre-Bosman, in the European Cup; that he had not signed John Barnes and Paul Gascoigne when they were at the peak of their powers.

To that list, had the Manchester United manager known then what he found out last week, might be added Zinedine Zidane. Ferguson and his staff, after all, spent the 1995-96 season scouting Zidane at Bordeaux - three times himself, 10 times in all - before concluding that he could not see where he might fit into the United team.

The French national side offered evidence, with Zidane playing as a withdrawn striker behind Youri Djorkaeff. When Zidane flopped at Euro 96, however, Ferguson must have felt vindicated in not taking the pounds 4m plunge that Juventus eventually had. Ferguson still had Eric Cantona, who had just completed the double Double with United.

Now Zidane looks the perfect replacement, as the French coach Aime Jacquet had maintained all along. On Wednesday, Zidane goes into the European Cup final against Borussia Dortmund in Munich described last week by the Juventus coach Marcello Lippi as the best player in the world. Lippi added in the face of Italian press reports that United had bid pounds 8m that he was not for sale.

It may be motivational hyperbole, rather than any attempt to talk up the price, but Zidane has indeed been the outstanding talent of this season's Champions' League. Twice he eclipsed Cantona in the group stages - "I said only two words to Eric, 'Hello and goodbye'," he said - and twice he dominated Ajax in the semi-final with a display of providing and scoring, pace and power, sharp passing and direct dribbling.

Zidane's lethargic performances in England last summer were no doubt the end product of a gruelling year which began with Bordeaux qualifying through the InterToto Cup for the Uefa Cup, the final of which they lost to Bayern Munich after beating Milan along the way. Though Zidane, voted French player of the year, can still appear gauche, he has figured largely in Juventus's retention of their Serie A title.

The similarities with Cantona are uncanny. Both were born in Marseille of immigrant stock - Zidane's ancestors are Algerian - and both were emotional individualists as teenagers. A strict father ensured that the excesses that scarred Cantona's career have been avoided.

Zidane, like his predecessor in the French team, is solid of frame but soft of touch when required. At a prematurely balding 25 next month he has developed into the epitome of the modern footballer: swift and skilful, industrious and incisive with an even temperament. "I must dribble as little as possible," he has said. "One, two, three touches, no more, and a pass at the right moment."

Zidane developed through the intense French programme that the Football Association have been monitoring. The technical director Gerard Houllier has seen him through almost the whole way. "You must be careful not to stereotype players, not to lose their charm and talent," says Houllier. "You must have team work and can have a sophisticated system but one outstanding player for one moment can bring an added value. It is what Platini had, what Cruyff could do. Zidane can do this also."

Though Dortmund will offer high-calibre resistance through Jurgen Kohler, and sharp attacking potential in Andreas Moller, Juventus's blend of skill and speed allied to work ethic should see them through. Zidane is its embodiment. Ferguson, the beaten semi-finalist regrouping for another tilt next season, may be looking on wistfully.

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