ZZ: Magnifique Zidane is primed for a glorious swansong

France invest hope in the <i>ancien r&eacute;gime</i> and their playmaker's enduring skills
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The Independent Online

Pele and Bobby Moore struck the original iconic pose of mutual admiration. This was rather different, after Portugal had been cast aside, not contemptuously, but with an hauteur that had eluded France early in their campaign. As the benches raged, in and around the tunnel area, after the final whistle at Munich's Allianz Arena, there was a respectful, almost discreet, embrace and shirt swap between Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo as another luminary departed this World Cup and possibly the international theatre, the French maestro having already seen off Brazil's Ronaldo.

Now for what had been declared an implausible quest in Berlin tonight. Dare a vibrant Italy finally prod Zidane and awaken him from his dream?

"We don't want to stop now," Zizou had said after he and Thierry Henry had combined successfully against Brazil in the quarter-finals - astonishingly, the first time he had fashioned a goal for the Arsenal striker in 55 internationals together. "This is so beautiful we want it to carry on." That was eight days ago. It has continued, an epic which is achieving almost biblical proportions. The Return of the Prodigious Son.

Zidane's lesson to the misanthropists makes for extraordinary reading. He claimed he had been told by a presence in the middle of the night last year to reconsider his original decision to retire after France's wretchedness in 2002 and 2004. Les Bleus Brothers - Zidane, Claude Make-lele and Lilian Thuram - had all retired. But after the playmaker returned last summer, Makelele succumbed, and then Thuram was selected against his will and reluctantly followed them.

The France coach, Raymond Domenech, believes in enriching his players culturally as well as tactically. He used to take his Under-21 players to museums and monuments, and had promised to do the same with his seniors in Germany. A month ago, Zidane was regarded as not much more than a fascinating artefact himself. Better to watch newsreel footage of France 98, in which he headed two goals against Brazil, and Euro 2000 than the real thing. Nothing too extravagant was expected of him, or a France squad who managed no fewer than five draws in their qualifying campaign, and whose pre-tournament "bonding session" in the Alps apparently ended with a row between the goalkeepers Fabien Barthez and Grégory Coupet.

France rejoiced at the trium-virate of the ancien régime - Zidane, recently turned 34, the same age as Thuram, and Make-lele, 33, and even Patrick Vieira was now 30 - but it was a reaction laced with scepticism. The hearts of the returnees were still strong. It was the legs that would fail them, it was said.

Two undistinguished exhibitions and a brace of cautions in two draws, against Switzerland and South Korea, deprived Zidane of participation in the Group G decider. It would be an ignominious conclusion if Les Bleus were eliminated, and, indeed, they were half an hour from that fate. The three-times World Player of the Year watched that match from the dressing room on his 34th birthday, ready to depart swiftly and quietly.

But France won 2-0 and Zidane was back for the second-round match, against Spain. "Au revoir," the Spain followers goaded him at corners, for there is no absolute respect enjoyed or expected in world football until you are, metaphorically, enclosed securely as an exhibit in a glass cabinet. Yet, possessing the cold eye and deadly presence of a killer shark, his authority against Spain was total. He sensed blood, and he and his team-mates gorged themselves on the wounded flesh, scoring a splendid goal in added time in a 3-1 win that was the defining moment in France's campaign.

"Watching Zizou play must make others feel they should stop," his fellow midfielder Vieira reflected. "It also makes you wish he would carry on."

Brazil felt the force as France drew renewed energy from that victory and Zizou continued in revivalist mode, one that had appeared unlikely indeed during the latter months of his career at Real Madrid, where he had cancelled the remaining year of his contract in April.

"Zidane was fantastic... he was everywhere, demanding the ball, controlling the play," enthused Pele. "Coming to the World Cup, he knew every game could be his last, and he has given everything he has in fighting spirit, the spirit we never saw from Ronaldo or Ronaldinho." The French Federation president, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, offered the ultimate accolade: "Zidane was the most Brazilian of all tonight."

Thierry Henry was, typically, more analytical after his Zidane-created goal had denied Brazil an opportunity to claim a sixth World Cup. "People point to Zizou coming into the game more, but that's because the team is playing better as a whole," he said. "We are more compact as a unit, we can support Zizou more, and as a result he is able to express himself more on the ball and have more of an influence."

France did not have to perform with distinction against Portugal, whom even Luiz Felipe Scolari failed to galvanise into a cohesive whole. Yet, in his way, Zidane still mesmerised and reflected a superiority which pervaded Domenech's team. Their penalty may have been a dubious award, but Zidane, in an instant, demonstrated to England's wretched spot-kickers how to outwit Ricardo. Never a doubt.

Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, a pundit for French TV, declared afterwards: "Everybody is so happy for him [Zidane], because after the Togo game voices were raised in France, asking whether he should still be in the team. Then he took us to the final, and maybe he has a chance to win a second World Cup. Technically, he is still so good."

The France coach concurred. "He's a magical player who makes the ball come alive and makes others play," said Dome-nech, whose influence over les grandes bêtes of French football has more than once been called into question. "It's precisely because he is retiring that Zidane is playing so well. He doesn't have to calculate anything. He has played with freedom and expression because he knows every game could be his last."

This evening, on which Zidane earns his 107th cap, will be the curtain call, come what may, of a career that begun for this son of Algerian immigrants in the tough La Castellane district in Marseilles. Will there be encores for the man, who apart from any other consideration, has helped to foster racial tolerance? One suspects that Italy's coach, Marcello Lippi, the tournament's best player, the defender Fabio Cannavaro, and characters such as Gennaro Gattuso will have something to say about that yet. As Wenger warns: "To win this game, we will need a big Thierry and a big Zidane."

Who would deny that possibility in this of all cities? Life truly is a cabaret, old chum.

FROM A TO ZZ: ANATOMY OF A FRENCH ARISTOCRAT

Brain

France's Zinedine Zidane exudes calm under the most intense pressure, which makes him an ideal penalty-taker. This sang-froid is allied to rapid analysis and spatial awareness, so that he is always on hand to receive the ball.

Eyes

With brooding brows giving him one of the most expressive faces in the game, Zidane also seems to have eyes in the back of his head. An uncanny anticipation of the positioning of team-mates and opponents buys him crucial milliseconds.

Balance

Despite a lumbering frame, Zidane glides across the turf. He has a full repertoire of tricks, yet they are so subtle compared to the efforts of others that it is as if they are not happening - flummoxing defences.

Heart

Zidane is sans pareil, the emblem of world football. He is the heartbeat of the France team, in terms of both passion and focus, and a standard-bearer of the disenfranchised ethnic communities in France's banlieux.

Feet

Sitting behind the front line, he shoots with curl and pace from long range, making him a dead-ball specialist as well as supplementary striker. He picks out pinpoint passes with either foot and delivers them with perfect weight.

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