James Lawton: Zidane's grand exit

After a long and sometimes sad decline, Zinedine Zidane has reasserted his talent in a glorious way in the last week. Certain to retire after the tournament, the World Cup's closing stages - beginning tonight in Munich - give the greatest footballer of recent times a thrilling stage on which to say farewell
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When Diego Maradona was a boy he nearly died in a sewer in his shanty town suburb of Buenos Aires. When Pele was young his skill with a ball was his only chance of escaping the favela. Zinedine Zidane, a failure at school, had a similar imperative when he played endlessly in the shadows of a drab courtyard in Le Castellane, a vast, lawless housing project filled with North African immigrants in one of the poorest quarters of Marseilles.

Now these superb footballers, two of the past and one, perhaps for just this game and for sure no more than another two, of the present, have another link. With exquisite timing, Zidane has made himself a candidate for authorship of possibly the greatest World Cup story ever told.

We will know more about Zizou's chances here tonight when he attempts to do to Portugal what he did to the reigning champions Brazil in Frankfurt on Saturday but already expectations are as high as the radio tower on the hill overlooking the shining new silver stadium.

If he can touch something like the same level of performance that destroyed Ronaldinho and his team- mates, at the age of 34, and four years after he left the last great tournament in the Far East drained and disillusioned, he will surely carry France to the final in Berlin on Sunday and then he will be at the heart of more than mere breathless speculation - he will be one game away from making the perfect, almost surreal end to the most beautiful of football stories.

One of Zidane's most intense admirers has already seen the dramatic potential. Jamel Debbouze, who won the Best Actor's award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, was stunned by the scale of Zidane's re-invention of himself against the Brazilians, and now he says: "It is almost impossible to describe the feelings that came when watching what he has done here and what he has given himself the chance to do at the climax of the World Cup. It is incredible, magical because it is a historic moment every time Zinedine Zidane is in a state of grace. It spreads something I can only call Zidane-itis."

Past and present team-mates agree. Christophe Dugarry, who played, briefly, alongside Zidane when he announced himself the best player in the world in 1998 while leading France to their first win in the World Cup, says: "Zizou plays football in another dimension...for the rest of us it can only be a fantasy." Zidane's fantasy is now brushing against the most astounding reality.

Consider the possibilities if Zidane, with the help of his old allies Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele - they made a round-table pact to come out of international retirement and rekindle the glory of 1998 and 2000, when the European title was added to the World Cup - successfully negotiate the hard, driving and sometimes cynical instincts of Luis Felipe Scolari's Portugal. Eight years after scoring the two goals that broke Brazil in another final, he would be duelling for the greatest prize in the game in which he is most celebrated, even revered.

And then, if he wins or loses, he walks away, a great actor leaving the stage for the last time. If he wins, the curtain calls will be astonishing because the theatre of world football will never have seen such a rounded performance or stunning final act.

The greatest sportsmen of the ages have yearned for such a dramatic moment of career fulfilment only to be ambushed by time. Muhammad Ali descended into defeat and a sad, sick haze. Pele ran out the thread of black pearl playing for New York Cosmos. Maradona, after years of drug addiction, not helped by the need for constant painkillers, left ignominiously after testing positive in the 1994 World Cup in America. George Best tragically pursued football gigs to the most obscure corners of the game.

But Zidane proposes something quite different. He aims to leave at the very pinnacle of the football he for so long distinguished, and then in recent years was required to suffer.

Aimé Jacquet, Zidane's coach when France reached the World Cup mountain-top for the first time, said that when the great man's first international retirement was announced in the wake of the crushing disappointment of defeat by Greece in the quarter-finals of Euro 200, "The gap he will leave is monumental".

Jacquet was no doubt reflecting on the comment of Zidane's former team-mate, the brilliant full-back Bixente Lizarazu, who said: "When we have the ball and don't know what to do with it, we give it to Zizou. He works it out."

John Giles, the vastly influential midfielder who was denied the chance to play in a World Cup by his Irish birth, but would have been readily granted one, Sir Alf Ramsey said, had he been born in England, has watched Zidane's extraordinary reincarnation in the fashion of an old pro: all stripped-down emotion and a cold eye on performance.

He says: "Watching Zidane in this World Cup has been a wonderful experience. It has confirmed a theory of mine that the really great players always retain the ability to produce exceptional performances even when they get older; what they have to accept is that these performances come down to just a few. They cannot be called upon as they once were. The conditions have to be right. There has to be confidence in younger team-mates. You have to be surrounded by good values - and people willing to do some of your running.

"In Franck Ribéry he certainly appears to have found a good ally. It would be tremendous for Zidane and for France and all of football if he can pull this off. It wouldn't be hard to understand Zidane's joy if he does. I'm sure his last few years at Real Madrid have been hell for him. You could see the values of a great team disappearing in the galactico policy, the changing coaches, the obvious lack of belief out on the field. Zidane didn't have to express his feelings. You could see them in his eyes, in his body language. He was saying that for him the best of it was over. Now he must feel he has come home to the best of what he once knew."

In Frankfurt, the Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was swift to acknowledge the impact of Zidane's generalship. "For so long he has been a brilliant player and he made life difficult, if not impossible for my players. He was constantly on the move and changing the game."

Zidane is candid about his re-fired ambition, saying: "I've no intention of stopping now. I'm gripped by an amazing feeling that comes whenever I realise that we are really going for the title. There have been some hard years and I really felt I had little more to contribute at the international level. Now I feel that anything is possible. My old team-mates and the younger members of the team are pulling together...after we beat Spain we knew we could do it, we could go all the way."

Ribéry, the eye-catching 23-year-old whose dashing performances for Marseilles have made him a favourite with the French public, and who confirmed his status with the goal that brought France back into the game with Spain, says that for now it is enough to play alongside the great Zizou. "What I'm experiencing right now," says Ribéry, "I know I will be telling my grandchildren about. It is something I will have all my life. If we win the Cup it will be an amazing bonus; I got to play with Zizou, I got to win a World Cup, sometimes when I think about it, it seems too much," Here tonight, and maybe in Berlin on Sunday, there is no doubt the eyes of the world game will be riveted on Zidane.

Apart from anything else there is a sublime symmetry in his situation. Triumphant in the World Cup when the Champs-Elysées filled to bursting point, when rockets pierced the sky and you couldn't get a Scotch or a hot dog in Harry's Bar, Zidane seemed to be sliding relentlessly almost from the moment he scored a glorious goal in the 2001 Champions' League final. He played just one game in the Far East, and spent it in a daze, and then he returned to a Real Madrid breaking up before his eyes. The man who sold at £46m when he left Juventus for the Bernabeu, was living in the shadows - and then the wilderness when a listless France trailed out of Euro 2004.

Now he approaches the end of the long journey back, the full circle from those high French summer days when, after an erratic start - he was sent off for fouling a Saudi Arabian - in response, some suggested, to a slur against his Nomadic Muslim ancestors, the Kabyles - he strode brilliantly into the heart of the French nation. Well, into most French hearts. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right party, said it was a bad day for the nation when an immigrant seized the glory of the Republic. Here tonight, Le Pen's old nightmare is back with astonishing force. For the rest of us, a fabulous dream continues to unfold.

And now, the end is near... How other football legends bowed out

PELE

Age (at retirement): 36

Club: New York Cosmos

In front of 35,000 at Portland's Civic Stadium, Pele's career ended on a high as he helped the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders 2-1 to win the North American Soccer League Championship. In his three years in America, Pele transformed the poor image and low popularity of the NASL.

FERENC PUSKAS

Age: 39

Club: Real Madrid

Sandwiched around Puskas' final league appearance against Seville on 21 November 1966 were his final European Cup ties against Kilmarnock. Despite scoring five of Madrid's seven goals in the previous round against Feyenoord, he was unable to add any more in the 7-3 aggregate win over Kilmarnock.

JOHAN CRUYFF

Age: 37

Club: Feyenoord

In 1983, having been freed by Ajax, Cruyff did the unthinkable and joined arch-rivals Feyenoord. Driven by anger at his former club, he played 33 of 34 league games and led Feyenoord to the double. His final league appearance was a 2-1 win against PEC Zwolle on 13 May 1984.

GEORGE BEST

Age: 37

Club: Tobermore United

Following spells at AFC Bournemouth and Brisbane Lions, Best's final competitive match was in February 1984 for Tobermore United, his only career appearance for a Northern Irish team. 3,500 people packed Fort William Park to see Ballymena United beat Best's side 7-0 in the Irish Cup.

DIEGO MARADONA

Age: 36

Club: Boca Juniors

Having left the 1994 World Cup following a drugs scandal, Maradona joined Boca Juniors and played 29 games, scoring seven goals in the process. His last game was against rivals River Plate on 25 October 1997, a game which Boca won 2-1.

BOBBY CHARLTON

Age: 37

Club: Preston North End

Following his exit from international football after the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, he played two more seasons for Manchester United before moving to Preston North End at the end of the 1973-74 season. However, he was forced to come out of retirement and became player/manager for the 1974-75 season. He played 38 games and scored eight goals for The Lilywhites, his last appearance coming in a 3-1 defeat to Charlton at The Valley on 29 April 1975.

ALFREDO DI STEFANO

Age: 40

Club: RCD Espanyol

After a glittering career at Real Madrid in which he was twice crowned European Footballer of the Year, Di Stefano saw out his playing days at Barcelona-based RCD Espanyol. His final professional appearance on 3 April 1966 saw them beaten 2-0 by eventual champions Atletico Madrid.

FRANZ BECKENBAUER

Age: 37

Club: New York Cosmos

In 1983, after a spell with Hamburg, Beckenbauer returned for a second spell with the New York Cosmos - he had previously played there between 1977 and 1980.

The German legend's playing career ended in something of a whimper, as the Cosmos crashed out of the end-of-season play-offs, losing 1-0 in a supposedly routine first-round fixture against Montreal Manic.

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