James Lawton: World stage will miss the master

International football is not so rich - and this has been especially so in this summer of the European Championship - that it can lightly mourn the departure of Zinedine Zidane.

Indeed, there has never been an age of the World Cup and European championship game inhabited by so much outstanding talent that the beauty and the light of Zidane's play would not have been mourned.

When 'Zizou' moved towards the peak of his powers six years ago, leading France to the World Cup victory over Brazil in Paris, he was more than a football star. He was a story of grace and redemption for one of the darkest corners of national life; a poor Algerian boy who was born in Marseille and grew up in a cheerless high-rise there, he was a thrilling antidote to the more rabid sections of a right wing hostile to the presence of France's large immigrant population from the old colonies.

Zidane, cool, understated and mostly dignified - a rare lapse was when he was sent off for reacting fiercely to an over-zealous, despairing Saudi Arabian marker - showed the potential of young people penned back in their ghettos. When the Champs-Elysées was jammed with a rejoicing nation, and they ran out of hot dogs and whisky in Harry's Bar, his name was never far from everyone's lips.

Now, when he is 32 - an age when the football cognoscenti might have hoped for at least a few more swigs from one of the finest vintages, he is plainly submitting to the physical and mental pressures which seemed so evident in the recent tournament in Portugal, when all the leading European nations were obliged to watch the triumph of the Greek team ethos.

Zidane was just one superior talent who failed to make an impact - apart from his exquisite dead-ball execution of England - and his decision to retire from international football, along with Paul Scholes of Manchester United, is another sign that big-money European club football is draining the reserves of its leading performers.

In earlier decades there was physical pressure enough for the top performers. Indeed, Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles were getting through a minimum of 60-odd club games, on heavy playing surfaces, when they became the first and only Englishmen to win both the World and European Cups, but undoubtedly there was less all-consuming attention on their work.

The fact is that Zidane suffered a season which, by his own standards, could only be described as nightmarish. Real Madrid were a travesty of their normal standards, and repeatedly Zidane was seen to be in anguish over the breakdown of rhythm and conviction. The horror was only compounded when Zidane joined his French team-mates for the challenge of the tournament in Portugal. France, who in their World Cup and European Championship wins of 1998 and 2000 represented a beautifully coherent brand of football, looked tired and disjointed, and had little will to resist the force of Greece in the quarter-finals.

Beyond that brief eruption against England, Zidane, who was among the walking wounded when France failed equally abysmally in their defence of the World Cup in the Far East two years ago, wore a face mask of defeat.

Plainly he now feels that the challenge of operating for both Real and France is too much. It is a decision that, on top of the widespread disappointments in Portugal, surely demands serious review by the football authorities. When you squeeze a melon sooner or later the pips are heard to squeak.

In the case of a footballer, he is increasingly aware that it is in club football that he shapes the scale of his rewards. Zidane has decided that international football must be the casualty as he protects his last days of huge earning power. It means that all over France and the wider football world yesterday a light went out.

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