Zinedine Zidane: He delights, he dazzles. Now Zizou wants to run the show

The world's finest player still feels unfulfilled. Alex Hayes in Porto talks to the French hero who is eager to make the tournament his own
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There is simply no pleasing some people. Zinedine Zidane may have scored the spectacular left-footed volley that secured Real Madrid the 2002 Champions' League trophy, as well as the penalty during golden- goal extra time that took France past Portugal to the final of Euro 2000, not to mention the two goals during the 1998 World Cup final victory over Brazil. And yet, incredibly, there is still one highly respected figure in the world game who believes that the greatest player of his generation must do better if he is to leave an indelible mark on a tournament.

There is simply no pleasing some people. Zinedine Zidane may have scored the spectacular left-footed volley that secured Real Madrid the 2002 Champions' League trophy, as well as the penalty during golden- goal extra time that took France past Portugal to the final of Euro 2000, not to mention the two goals during the 1998 World Cup final victory over Brazil. And yet, incredibly, there is still one highly respected figure in the world game who believes that the greatest player of his generation must do better if he is to leave an indelible mark on a tournament.

The name of this foolish critic? One Zinedine Yazid Zidane.

This is not a crass attempt at false modesty from the man known affectionately as "Zizou". The Frenchman is aware of his status and the importance of his contribution to clubs and country these last 12 years. Rather, this is the candid self-assessment of a player who has always demanded more. More from others, but first and foremost, more from himself.

"When I stop playing," he says ahead of tonight's mouthwatering meeting with England in Lisbon, "of course I would love people to remember me for my impact on an entire competition. I don't just want to have one good game, or score one important goal; I want to be influential from start to finish.

"We all refer to the Pele World Cup of 1970, the [Franz] Beckenbauer one of 1974, or the Maradona one of 1986. And we all also talk about the 1976 European Championship of [Antonin] Panenka, the 1984 one of [Michel] Platini, or the 1988 one of [Marco] Van Basten. I have not yet deserved that special honour." Bizarre as it sounds, Zidane is probably right. He was tired at Euro '96 in England, got sent off at France '98 before redeeming himself just in time during the final, and was carrying an injury at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea two summers ago. Only at Euro 2000, when France were crowned champions of the continent in the Low Countries, did Zidane play well consistently. "Well, but not brilliantly," he points out, despite having been named player of the tournament. "I did not always shine four years ago."

On closer inspection, there is some logic to Zidane's relatively low profile. Where France's No 10 differs from previous world- class playmakers is that he is very much part of a team. While Les Bleus would be considerably weakened by his absence, Zidane is the first to point out that "we are not a one-man band. France can cope without Zinedine Zidane. She has done it before and she will no doubt do it again. It is our togetherness that is the strength of this generation; not the individualities."

Try telling that to the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, who has spent all week devising a plan to stop the best player in the world from dominating proceedings. "I do not consider myself to be the best player in the world," Zidane retorts, almost angry. "That's for sure. All I want is to do well for, and with, the French team. I realise how lucky I am to be a part of this team and have the chance to play in a European Championship again. I do not want to miss a thing. Having said all that, England are right to be scared of the French as a team."

There can be few doubts that France have both the better talent and the greater cohesion. When fit, Zidane will always play, but the same could be said for the bulk of the side who will face England at the Stadium of Light. With France, Zidane is simply first among equals. It was this methodology that helped Aimé Jacquet secure the World Cup in 1998 and his successor, Roger Lemerre, earn another title two years later at the Euro.

Not surprisingly, the future former manager of France, Jacques Santini, has decided to follow suit. "Make no mistake," Santini explains, "France needs Zidane. He is the symbol of this team and will remain so until he stops. But he is in, not above, the group." Santini adds: "When I ask the players to be back at a certain time, I do not make exceptions for Zizou. That is not the best way to make a close-knit unit function. Zizou not only knows this, he demands it. If you ask him, he will tell you that the one thing he hates most is being treated differently from his team-mates."

So far as Bixente Lizarazu, who has known Zidane since they were teenagers together in the Bordeaux youth team, is concerned, Zidane's strength is his determination to be normal. "Zizou is an exceptional human being," says the French full-back, who could follow Santini to Tottenham Hotspur after the European Championship. "His humility is genuine, just as is his respect for others. He is the ultimate icon and yet he manages to remain polite and humble around people. That is the sign of a man with real class."

No one should underestimate the pressure Zidane is under. Here is the son of Algerian immigrants, a devoted family man and a fiercely private person, carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. Again and again. Whenever France play, Zizou is expected to perform. If it is against a poor side, the crowd want him to dazzle. If it is against tougher opposition, he is urged to save the team. ZZ must be top. "Nobody in France can imagine what is demanded of Ziz," says Lizarazu. "It's not pressure, it's oppression. And it is the same thing every single day."

Only one man could begin to understand what Zidane goes through. The only difference being that his Real Madrid team-mate David Beckham enjoys the media hype that surrounds him. "We both have extra responsibilities," Zidane acknowledges, "and David has always dealt with those brilliantly. He is a smart man." And a good footballer? "Of course," he says. "Real Madrid don't buy bad players. He has had an excellent first season in Spain and will be a real danger to us."

If, as expected, Beckham plays on the right flank for England and Zidane occupies his usual position on the left of midfield for Les Bleus, the two men could have quite a battle. "I'd expect us to cross swords here and there during the match," Zidane smiles. "David is going to be a tough opponent because he works very hard for the team and runs a lot. He never tires and won't give up without a fight." Zidane, who turns 32 on Wednesday week, adds: "In fact, this entire England side are incredibly hard-working. They are a big team, who have already had great results on the world stage. It's 50-50."

What memories does Zidane have of previous France-England matches? "For me," he says, "the first thing that comes into my head is the Champions' League quarter-final between Manchester United and Juventus in 1999 [when United over-turned a 2-0 deficit to beat the Italians and progress to the final in the Nou Camp]. Those were unbelievable games. On the international stage, there is our amazing 2-0 victory [thanks to a Nicolas Anelka double strike in February 1999] at Wembley. It was a tough battle, and a very significant result. But, you know, there have been tricky times, too, like the 1-1 draw at the Stade de France [in September 2000]." He adds: "That's why I am convinced Sunday will be a tight match, and I doubt there will be many goals. In the end, the result will be decided by some small flashes of genius."

The problem for Zidane is that the England midfield and defence have no intention of letting him weave his magic. "It doesn't particularly worry me that England will play a tight, man-marking game," he says. "I am my team's playmaker, so it is only normal that I am going to be singled out for special treatment. It's been that way for me for a while now, and I've got used to it. So long as the referees protect the creative players as much as possible, I'm sure I can do well."

Zidane refuses to talk of Euro 2004 as an opportunity to lay the ghosts of South Korea, where France failed to progress beyond the group stages at the last World Cup, to rest. However, the Far East débâcle has not been forgotten. "It would be pointless trying to seek some sort of revenge on history," he says. "The 2002 World Cup is still in our minds and continues to frustrate us, but that's life. You have to move on. No one should forget that we are winners and that we still have one major title in our trophy cabinet that we intend to defend with all our heart."

Does that mean that the objective is to win Euro 2004? "Our aim..." He pauses for thought. "Let's just say that we spent the last two years trying to qualify for the European Championship, so there is no point in going there to do some sight-seeing. We intend to go a long, long way. That has always been the motto of this group: win, win, win. Even if we lifted the trophy 10 times in a row, I can assure you that we would be just as hungry and determined on the 11th occasion."

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