Zidane: 'England are still in the race'

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The Independent Football

Less than 24 hours after Zinedine Zidane had demonstrated all his footballing mastery, by scoring the equalising free-kick and winning penalty in two extraordinary minutes of added time against England at Lisbon's Stadium of Light, the greatest footballer of his generation showed that he remains a class act off the pitch, too.

Less than 24 hours after Zinedine Zidane had demonstrated all his footballing mastery, by scoring the equalising free-kick and winning penalty in two extraordinary minutes of added time against England at Lisbon's Stadium of Light, the greatest footballer of his generation showed that he remains a class act off the pitch, too.

Yesterday afternoon, as he met the press at the French camp here, there were no histrionics from the man they call Zizou. No gloating. Just kind words for the brave losers. "England gave us a lot of problems," he said. "They were very well organised and really frustrated us, especially our front players like Titi [Thierry Henry]. They are still very much in the race and will do well in the tournament. I'm sure of it."

There were thoughts, too, for his club team-mate David Beckham who, unlike Zidane, missed his penalty. "Yes I saw him briefly after the game," Zidane said. "We swapped shirts and had a quick word. But I could tell he was upset and, to be honest, the best thing that you can do in these situations is leave someone alone. People need time to themselves when they've lost a game in such a dramatic way."

The drama, in this case, was all provided by Zidane. France had gone a full 90 minutes without scoring a goal for the fourth game in a row in a major tournament (they lost two and drew one of their three group matches at the 2002 World Cup without finding the back of the net), when their star player stepped up to curl in an inch-perfect free-kick. "As soon as the foul [by Emile Heskey] was committed," he recalled, "I knew I was the one who should take it."

Was Zidane nervous? "No," he insisted, "the great thing is that even before a free-kick like that I don't feel any emotion. I know exactly what to do. I've scored from these situations before, so I don't think about the importance of the occasion or how long is left on the clock. I just go for it. I just swing a boot at it."

If only Beckham had swung his boot in the same calm and clinical fashion 21 minutes before Zidane applied the coup de grâce from the spot. "What can I say," Zidane sighed. "Players sometimes miss penalties. It happens. And, on Sunday, it saved us because if England had gone 2-0 up it would have been game over."

Somehow, though, one never sensed Zidane would miss. Even when he was about to take the tricky free-kick, a goal seemed inevitable. "I always practise free-kicks and penalties a lot," was Zidane's typically low-key response to his wonder strikes. "Maybe I even did a few more than usual to get used to the ball in the two or three days before the game. You have to practise, whoever you are."

Time and again, Zidane was asked whether he was over the moon or proud, or both. And, time and again, he refused to take the credit for the goals, preferring instead to divert attention away from himself and onto the team as a whole. "We never doubted for a second that we could come back into the game," the Real Madrid playmaker said, "otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get the free-kick and then score from there. In order to save a match you have to believe in yourself, and it says everything about this group of players that we won the game in the end."

Zidane added: "I can assure you it was a very important win for us because of what happened in South Korea at the last World Cup [when France went home in turmoil, having failed to progress beyond the group stages]. It wasn't an easy game against a tough and resolute England team, but it was exactly the kind of match we needed to be involved in. It gives us plenty of confidence now for the rest of the Euro."

Though he plays his club football in La Liga, Zidane admitted he shared in the excitement of the Premiership-based players after the victory. "Look," he said, dismissing any suggestion that the French team had deliberately tried to upset their English counterparts by singing and dancing in the dressing room after the final whistle, "we just felt we'd got over the biggest hurdle. This was a very important match for us to win because it was the first game, because it was against England and because it will be the toughest game of the group, if not the entire tournament."

That is, of course, unless the two teams meet again on 4 July in the same stadium for the final. Zidane just giggled. "Wait and see," he said with a smile. "Wait and see."

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