Champion's creed drives Zidane along the final straight

Few players bow out at a World Cup final, but then even fewer have Zinedine Zidane's combination of talent and determination, writes Glenn Moore
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The Independent Football

He is recognised as the finest player France has produced, eclipsing Michel Platini, and the world's best since Diego Maradona. But why? What makes Zinedine Zidane so special?

The answer, say the men who should know, is a rare blend of talent and attitude.

"He is is a great player for a variety of reasons, not least pride," said Johnny Giles, himself a high-class midfielder for Leeds United and the Republic of Ireland.

Giles added: "At 34, when you have won so much and earned so much, it is unusual to see a man putting himself on the line as Zidane is. Any old player will tell you that at 34 you still can produce a performance or two, but it is a hell of a lot harder than when you're 24.

"The most remarkable thing about him is that for such a tall man he has quite beautiful balance. This allows him to do the most amazing things in tight situations, always the mark of a great one.

"You can throw in most of the attributes of all-time greats: brilliant vision and tremendous technique, in both passing the ball, and going by defenders. But it is the pride that impresses me most. He wants to win, he wants to go out the right way."

That much has been clear from his demeanour and focus this tournament. Zidane himself has said: "You never get tired of winning. It doesn't matter whether I'm playing football, tennis, or any other competition."

He added: "You have to be naturally competitive at the top. The best players are self-motivated. You cannot teach people this. Titles are not everything. There's also the quality of the game, the play, the joy we can create. Yet a bad 1-0 is better than a nice 2-2."

Craig Brown, the former Scotland manager, noted: "He always seems to have time because his first touch is great. He uses his body brilliantly to screen the ball, he turns well, and he's never caught in a situation when he doesn't know what to do."

That first touch was honed in the Place Tartane amid the neglected public housing estates of Marseilles. Zidane and his friends would do tricks with the ball day after day, with Zidane the most diligent. But when he first went to Cannes - after the scout Jean Varraud told the club: "I have found a boy with hands in place of feet" - he ducked when a ball was thrown at his head. In Place Tartane there had been no heading. He later learned well enough to head two goals in a World Cup final.

Zidane moved on to Bordeaux where Gerry Francis tried to buy him for Tottenham, only to find a deal had already been struck with Juventus. Francis, who captained England from midfield, said yesterday: "Zidane always seems to have plenty of time. When the ball comes he knows exactly where everyone is, so he can play it first time, or let it run knowing no one is behind him.

"He's a bit of a stroller and he reminds me a little of Trevor Brooking. He's not the greatest tackler but he has two great feet, great vision, and in his younger days he was very mobile. He can create goals or score them, he can strike or curl the ball. If you give him the freedom of the pitch, like Brazil did, he can murder you. I'd expect Italy to man-mark him."

That, however, may create room for others, like Thierry Henry. "The whole squad benefits just from him being there," Henry said. "I see the game differently and play in another way when Zidane's in the side. The way he changes the pace of the game at will means that the rest of us are constantly finding ourselves with more space. He makes everything easier."

That said, Henry's matchwinner against Brazil was, incredibly, his first goal from a Zidane assist. This extraordinary fact has been examined for sinister implications, especially as Henry complained, in the wake of France's Euro 2004 débâcle, about the slowness of service from the midfield. One French tabloid asked then if the nation's twin stars disliked each other.

The truth is more prosaic. Henry's ego may be piqued by Zidane's status, the pair may disagree, on occasion, about the tactics France employ, but there is no bitter enmity. Henry is not a close friend, but few are. The French captain is a quiet man who wields huge influence but prefers to be on the fringe of dressing-room events. With Les Bleus he has usually had one or two close confidants, initially his old Bordeaux team-mate, Christophe Dugarry, now Willy Sagnol.

"He has an aura about him, you open the door and someone comes in, other players, you open the door and no one comes in," Brown said. "He can command without shouting the odds. The other players respect Henry's ability but they are not in awe of him the way they are with Zidane. It is great to have someone like that in a club, or team."

The final word comes from one of the new generation in the team. "Zizou is the man who shows us all how to play," said Florent Malouda. "He is our decisive player and our leader. When he plays well, the team plays well."

'He is not artificial like Beckham or Ronaldo'

By Glenn Moore

He adorns the wall, the menu and the staff. He even has a perch at the counter. The café Marcanne, a small corner of Berlin which has remained resolutely Gallic during this World Cup, illustrates just what Zinedine Zidane means to the French.

The house speciality is a Zizou salad. He is the main figure in many of the pictures ripped from the pages of L'Equipe and Libération and pasted on the walls. There is even a lifesize cardboard cut-out of him astride a scooter - named Zizou.

"Zidane," said the café's owner, Anne-Hadia Choukair, sporting a T-shirt with the great playmaker's visage on it, "is the man who began my love of football in 1998. I like the fact he is international. He is from an Algerian background - my own father was from Lebanon - but he is also French. Germans tend to know Germans, the French have friends from many backgrounds."

"He is a very important man but he lives a normal life, he is not artificial like Beckham or Ronaldo. Football needs people like Beckham, but humans need people like Zidane. Everyone would like to be his wife or brother."

This morning Anne and Marc Ortola, her husband, will host a party in which Clément d'Antibes, the fan who smuggles cockerels into football and rugby rounds, will be the star guest. After Zizou's cut-out, of course.