One of the absorbing sub-plots at a modern World Cup is the continual meeting in opposition of club-mates, past and present. Sometimes, as in last Saturday's tragi-comedy, When Wayne Met Cristiano, comradely love falls foul of national pride. In the Allianz Arena this evening, there is likely to be rather more mutual respect shown between two of the modern greats, Portugal's Luis Figo and France's Zinedine Zidane. Until last season, they were colleagues and friends at Real Madrid, winners of the World Player of the Year award and recruited for enormous sums so that some of their magic might rub off on the Bernabeu. Now they are due to go head to head for a place in the World Cup final, as long as Figo is passed fit to play.
Yet two years ago it seemed likely that neither would be seen again on the international stage. Disappointed respectively by Portugal's failure to win Euro 2004 on home ground and France's efforts at defending their title, both men intended to concentrate on club football. Each was talked into one more campaign and this morning their countries have cause to be grateful for that.
Like veteran Test batsmen playing themselves in for a long knock, the two midfielders started slowly. Indeed, Zidane's greatest impression on a wretched French performance in the goalless draw with Switzerland was right at the finish, when he was pictured bawling out Lilian Thuram, another of the trio (completed by Claude Makelele) who had answered the call to return from international retirement for the final four games of France's faltering qualifying campaign.
Booked in the Swiss match and the following draw against South Korea, he missed the final group match against Togo, but returned to play all his shots in two dazzling outings against Spain and then Brazil. "Zidane was everywhere, demanding the ball, controlling the play," said Pele, one of the few bigger names in world football, who contrasted the Frenchman's "fighting spirit" with that of Brazil's own superstars, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo.
Meanwhile, Figo, in his quieter fashion, was bringing some coherence to Portugal's challenge as their best player against Iran and Mexico, before becoming caught up in the mayhem of the nine-a-side match against the Netherlands, when he might have been sent off for a head-butt. Against England at the weekend he earned mixed reviews, regularly switching wings as usual with Cristiano Ronaldo but generally finding less joy than the younger man.
Although the pair trained separately from the rest of the squad yesterday, raising doubts over their fitness, tonight they are again expected to support Portugal's lone striker Pauleta, who will need to improve on his performance against Rio Ferdinand and John Terry if his country are to progress to their first World Cup final. Zidane will form part of a different shaped midfield behind Thierry Henry, with Florent Malouda to his left and young Franck Ribery, his eventual successor as the team's playmaker, on the right. While desperate to sign off with a place in the final, however, Zidane, who was 34 last month, must tread carefully - he is one of no fewer than 11 players who would miss the game if booked again.
Figo, another of them, will be pleased by the return of Deco from suspension and must hope the Barcelona man can bring greater creativity than was evident against England's 10 men, when Petit (suspended tonight), Tiago and Maniche comprised a sterile central trio. The Portuguese captain knows too that history is against him as the last survivor of a supposedly golden generation that did not actually win anything (Steve McClaren et al, please note); and he will almost certainly be aware that his country have not beaten France in their last seven meetings, going back 31 years.
"You think about what you have done, about the country behind you, supporting you, suffering with you and that gives you the strength to continue to play," Figo said.
"It's a shame that players such as Zidane and Figo are getting older," the Portuguese coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, said last night. "We would like to see them play for another seven, eight or 15 years. The ball doesn't cry at their feet. When I played, I made the ball cry."
Scolari admits to presiding over the underdogs for this fixture. "France are a team of quality," he said. "They are very fast and have a very good spirit in their team but we do as well. We have to work as a team and in football you never know which team is going to win. We will be positive and try and change the history of this fixture. Favourites don't always win."
Chelsea's William Gallas was less complimentary about Portugal, saying: "We must be careful - they like diving, you can see that. I think they have the ability to destabilise teams with actions and little fouls and it's essential that we keep cool."Reuse content