James Lawton: Zidane shows touch of majesty amid decline and fall

Click to follow
The Independent Football

As if this 18th World Cup hadn't been heaped with enough blessings, Zinedine Zidane started to play. Not as he had for most of the first half of a hot and somnolent evening, but pretty much as he did eight years ago when France were world champions and he was a wonder of the game.

Zidane, advancing on his 34th birthday, may have been offering just the briefest cameo of the old majesty, the sweep of vision and the brilliant cutting edge of skill, but for a little while it confused the hard-running Swiss - who twice drew with France in a bruising qualifying campaign - and for the rest of us there was the haunting thrill that comes when an old champion unveils, in unpromising circumstances, something of the best of himself.

This happened most dramatically as the French, who had injected Marseilles' 23-year-old favourite, Franck Ribéry, into a midfield that the coach, Raymond Domenech, was concerned might just begin to groan with a mixture of fatigue and sated ambition, tried to rekindle at least a little of the old glory.

Zidane floated a pass to Thierry Henry that recalled how it was when France seemed to be laying down the foundations of one of the great football empires, beating Brazil in Paris for the World Cup and then, two years later, the Italians in Rotterdam for the European Championship.

That all seemed a mirage in Seoul four years ago when Senegal ran them to a standstill - and a 1-0 defeat - in the opening game of their defence. Patrick Vieira and Henry confessed to being dead on their feet when they returned from the Far East without a goal - or a win.

In Portugal in Euro 2004, after rising up against England in the last minutes of another opening title defence, they meekly surrendered to the march of the modestly talented Greece.

It meant here last night France were doing a little more than attempting to qualify from one of the more modest groups, which also includes South Korea and Togo. They were striving to check the decline and fall of the French football empire.

For Zidane, who retired from the international game after the failure in Portugal, there was also an intensely personal challenge. Having come back to the stage he once dominated, he had an obligation to do more than play from fading memory. This was what he appeared to be doing until he delivered the ball so sweetly to the feet of Henry.

Either side of the half there was more journeying back down the byways of a great talent. He found space, he twisted on the ball in the old mesmerising way, delivered it with moments of piercing acumen and then he made an official plea to call back the years. He waved to the French fans, heavily outnumbered by the Swiss, in an attempt to conjure old emotions - and old surges of the blood.

The trouble was that the Swiss were resolute, except when Philippe Senderos missed a tackle on Ribéry, and the French failed to exploit moments of old rhythm and bite, and, perhaps inevitably, the muse - and the running - of Zidane had begun to ebb.

He still made subtle interventions. He still seemed to believe that from somewhere he could find again a flash of the old force. But the Swiss kept running and the breakthrough seemed ever more elusive. Zidane, who some say has become a shell of a player, a man who can no longer do any more than go through the motions, had to settle for a share of the points - and maybe another chance to settle into the last great challenges of his career.

For those who have the highest hopes for the game in this latest test of its will and its talent it is surely not the least point of anticipation. Certainly, Zidane is not about to give up easily, as he proved with a fierce lecture to his old ally Lilian Thuram as they walked off the field.