Au revoir Zidane, le genius

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In a poll last year in which French people were asked to nominate their greatest living compatriot, only Abbé Pierre, the nonagenarian priest who was a hero of the Resistance, kept Zinedine Zidane off the top spot. As a saddened France absorbed the news yesterday that the 32-year-old footballer was retiring from the international game, even the Abbé himself might have had to yield to a man whose skill and immense dignity will be lasting symbols of the most successful era in French football history.

"It's not easy to stop after 10 years full of highs and lows - especially highs - but my hour has come," the 32-year-old playmaker said. "It's the end of a cycle." And his decision is final - he said he would not be persuaded into a comeback, even to help out in an emergency.

"That would not be logical of me," he said. "The French team has enough talent to overcome any challenges. I hope the idea of my return never enters the coach's mind for a second."

Coming soon after Lilian Thuram, Bixente Lizarazu and Marcel Desailly all exited the international stage, his retirement closes a glorious chapter for French football.

"This is the end of a story," he said. "It's important to know when your time to go has come. Some players had done it in 2000 and in 2002. Others like me are doing it now."

After 93 caps and 26 goals for France, the playmaker said he had been considering bowing out for a while. "I had this idea even before the European championship," he said. "I think I would have left even if we had a good result. Obviously it's easier to leave when you lose than when you win.

"There is a day when you understand that you have to make room for the youths, to leave them enough time to prepare themselves for the 2006 World Cup. France needs a new generation. That starts today, not six months down the line."

The natural successor to Michel Platini, Zidane made his debut for Les Bleus in August 1994 as a substitute against the Czech Republic, scoring twice in three minutes to help France earn a 2-2 draw. He had begun his career with Cannes before joining Bordeaux in 1992 and then Juventus in 1996.

His transfer to Real Madrid in 2001 was worth a record €75m [£50.4m]. His contract at the Bernabeu runs until 2007 - and in the manner of Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes, he has sacrificed country for club.

"My decision is going to give me more time to focus on my job with Madrid," he said. His best memory with France is the 1998 World Cup final, when he headed two goals in the 3-0 win over Brazil. "I will always remember all these people celebrating and chanting in the streets," he said. "It will remain one of the greatest moments in my life."

And life after Zizou? The France coach, Raymond Domenech, turned to youth as he named his first squad without the great man yesterday for the friendly against Bosnia in Rennes next week, including seven uncapped players.

Only 10 from the Euro 2004 squad retained their places, with Fabien Barthez the last surviving member of the World Cup-winners. The captain's armband passes to Patrick Vieira. The gap Zidane leaves as a player will prove harder to fill.

WHO WILL REPLACE ZIDANE AS THE GREATEST?

Ronaldinho

(Barcelona and Brazil)

Dazzling close control, extraordinary vision and a flair for the unexpected.

Pablo Aimar

(Valencia and Argentina)

Similar in many ways to Ronaldinho, but a (relatively) poor season has seen his stock fall.

Kaka

(Milan and Brazil)

Arrived in Milan a year ago as a raw 21-year-old, by mid-season he had displaced Rui Costa with some masterful displays in midfield.

Wayne Rooney

(Everton and England)

The sensation of Euro 2004, it is probably too early for the 18-year-old to become acknowledged as absolute best, but the potential is there.

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