Zidane's art sparks French renaissance

In a World Cup notable for bravura attacking football, the 1998 champions seemed forlorn figures until a magical display on Tuesday night. Glenn Moore analyses an unlikely resurrection
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Saturday may be when Ronaldo finally lays his ghosts but Tuesday was Zidane's night. Having stirred against Japan last week, the Brazilian's record-breaking display against Ghana might have been anticipated, but the French captain's refusal, later that day, to go quietly into retire-ment was a thrilling surprise. "Zidane is without end," proclaimed the French sports newspaper, L'Equipe, delighted to find its obituaries had been premature. It added: "Zidane showed there will always be Zizou."

The 34-year-old, aided and abetted by his fellow thirty-somethings, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele, had drawn the sting of Spain's swarming, youthful midfield, then released the younger legs of Franck Ribéry and Thierry Henry. Zidane's passing was sumptuous, his ability to make space and time for himself emblematic of the great players. For all Spain's possession and promise, had the finishing of the French been sharper they would have won 5-1. An early chance, originating from Zidane's cunning pass to Henry, went begging. Later the otherwise anonymous Florent Malouda wasted another opportunity crafted by the balding maestro. Eventually Zidane took on the task himself, finishing off the Spanish with a matador's flourish in injury time.

Raymond Domenech, the French coach, is not one to talk about individuals. When initially pressed he said: "The French journalists will tell you I always say there are 23 players in my team and everyone is important". But even this technocrat, whose relationship with Zidane has been a tense one, with questions asked about who really runs the team, could not remain austere. "If there is an extra happiness in this victory,"he added, "it is in Zidane. It was special for Zizou to score because we all know what we can bring to the team. You come to expect him to influence games like that but the fact he can score a goal in the 92nd minute at the age of 34 is another reason for us to feel happy."

Even Zinedine himself, a man proud of his achievements, but rarely loquacious or boastful, was moved to say: "We have felt very disrespected after being described as too old. We are not old, but experienced. I think we have proven to everyone we still have quality. Now we want to keep on winning. As for my retirement. It is not yet. The adventure continues."

And what an adventure. Zidane, remember, was on the sidelines, lamed with a thigh injury, for much of France's catastrophic 2002 World Cup. Apart from a brief display of virtuosity against England he was quiet in their leaden performance at Euro 2004. After that he retired from Les Bleus only returning to resurrect their qualifying campaign for this World Cup after, he said, initially, "voices in the night" told him to. After much mirth at his expense he identified that voice to be his brother's.

When France stumbled into the second round, held both by the metronomic South Koreans and dull Swiss, it appeared he would have been better off turning a deaf ear to the appeal. Had France not defeated Togo - a match for which Zidane was suspended - the three times World Player of the Year's last act in professional football would have been to hand over the armband after being humiliatingly substituted in injury time against South Korea.

That seemed a case of Domenech flexing his muscles. As a player he had been a hard man, even breaking an opponent's leg on his debut for Lyon at 16. As a coach he is stubborn, but his authority had been undermined by Zidane's return. Zizou brought Makelele and Lilian Thuram with him and Domenech has been assailed for relying on the old guard while ignoring their requests to adopt a 4-4-2 formation. A 54-year-old federation man, previously with the Under-21s, he has never picked an unchanged team. Last week Vieira, when asked if he thought Domenech's coaching was "up to the job", responded tartly: "It doesn't matter whether I do or not. It doesn't change anything."

On Tuesday night they sat together at a dais in a small room under the AWD Arena's main stand. Any division seemed healed, but it was noticeable that they exchanged few words, and when an English reporter had to repeat his question to Domenech three times because the coach's headset, in which he received translation, was not working, Vieira refrained from helping out by translating himself.

Other splits also seem merely to be papered over, not fixed. A reporter was asking Henry, in the most gushing of terms, how it was that a player as young and inexperienced as Ribéry could show such style, confidence and élan. Henry, in that disdainful way of his, noted Spain had just such a player themselves in Francesco Torres, and, indeed, though he would not presume to say it himself, in the 1998 finals France also had such a young player, one who scored three goals (and now plays for Arsenal).

This, and other stories emanating from the camp, suggest Henry doth protest too much when he insisted: "There's an extraordinary spirit in the squad at the moment, even if a lot of people seem to find that hard to believe. That spirit has been the key to our wins."

But successful teams do not have to like each other, and winning tends to soothe all wounds. France's previously disjointed mix of youth and experience is beginning to blend and they know they can beat Brazil: four of this team played in the 1998 final, as did three of the current Brazilian XI.

"We will have to play even better to stand a chance but I believe we can because that team can adapt to the opposition and raise the level of their game," said Domenech.

Another 30-something, Thuram, admitted: "The trauma of 2002 was still hanging over us at the start of the competition, but we're beyond that now. It's forgotten."

Henry added: "We've not been as good as that for a long time. But we believed in ourselves and fought like lions."

One man who will not be missed from this tournament is the Spain coach, Luis Aragones, whose parting contribution was to claim "we made a mistake not stopping Ribéry with a tactical foul before he scored".

His captain, Raul, added with greater magnanimity of their latest failure: "We faced a great French team. They proved they are not dead but alive and well. As for us. It's always the same. In the moment of truth we fail to deliver."

France, by contrast, did deliver with Zidane, more than anyone, epitomising Domenech's conclusion: "We're old but we're still smart."

Beware les dinosaures.

Paris bursts into 'un scénario fabuleux' as nation rekindles romance with Les Bleus

French fans and media hailed the 3-1 victory over Spain as their side's best World Cup finals performance since winning the title in 1998.

Thousands of chanting supporters filled the Champs-Elysées in Paris after the match on Tuesday night, returning to the scene of the rapturous celebrations that greeted Les Bleus when they won the cup as hosts eight years ago. Late-night metro trains reverberated to choruses of "On a gagné! On a gagné!" ("We've won! We've won!"), the traditional cry of victorious French supporters, until the last underground services stopped after midnight.

"Giant!" headlined Le Parisien newspaper yesterday over a full-page picture of Franck Ribéry (pictured right with Thierry Henry) and Zinedine Zidane celebrating the goal that sealed France's victory. "This time we really saw Les Bleus," it said. The front-page headline of the sports daily paper L'Equipe read simply "Le Bonheur!", or "Happiness!", while a headline on the inside pages described "Un scénario fabuleux", which hardly needs translating.

The outburst of support, which filled the French capital's streets with honking cars and flag-waving fans until the small hours, was in stark contrast to the resignation that accompanied the team's lacklustre first-round performances.

After a humiliating 2002 World Cup campaign, in which the team were sent packing after three matches without scoring a goal, and a first round in Germany in which they laboured to get through a relatively easy group, many believed the team's best days were behind them. But the reinvigorated performance in Hanover from a squad previously criticised as too old and slow left the country looking forward to the quarter-final game with Brazil, their opponents in the 1998 final, with renewed confidence.

"We're off again," Libération said on its front page. "Could the epic of 1998 be repeated?"

France beat Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 final to win the cup for the first and only time.

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