John Lichfield: Why France still loves Zidane

Win or lose, Sunday's World Cup final should have marked the glorious climax to Zinedine Zidane's dazzling career. Instead, it will be remembered for the rage-filled moment that exposed the tragic flaw in a true sporting hero. As France embraces its beloved 'Zizou', John Lichfield unravels the complex mental state of a man who carried the burdens of a divided nation on his shoulders - and buckled under the weight

It all starts and ends with Zinedine Zidane's head. The Zidane legend - the story not just a footballing genius but of an icon of racial healing, of smiling modesty and seeming calm - began with two headed goals eight years ago.

Zidane's head, balding but not yet shaven, handsome in a Mr Spock kind of way, put two goals past Brazil in the World Cup final in Paris in July 1998. On Sunday night in Berlin, another missile-like Zidane header almost won a second World Cup for France. With the score at 1-1, with extra time being played, the ball was clawed from beneath the bar at the last moment by the Italy goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon.

Then, 10 minutes from the end - 10 minutes from the end of extra time in the World Cup final, 10 minutes from the end of Zidane's glorious career - a billion people watching television all over the globe saw the quiet genius, the likeable man of peace, ram his head into the chest of the Italian defender, Marco Materazzi.

What was going through the celebrated Zidane head at that moment? What had possessed a man who had become - or been made into - a symbol for the reconciliation of the racial divisions of France and, by extension, the world?

Materazzi had evidently said something. But what? Almost certainly something racist or something deeply personal, former colleagues of Zidane (always known as "Zizou") speculated yesterday, without condoning what their friend did.

Zidane walked past Materazzi disdainfully, at first, and then went at the tall Italian like a bull and butted him savagely. Collapse of Materazzi in theatrical disarray (and no doubt private triumph). Confusion. Intervention of the fourth, off-the-pitch, match official. Red card for Zidane. Ignominy for the man of peace. France went on to lose the game on penalties.

And there is no way back. No other matches in which Zinedine Zidane, 34, can redeem himself. He had announced before the World Cup that this would be his last appearance, not just for France but in any match of competitive, professional football.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Franco-German politician, leader of the 1968 Paris student revolt and a passionate football fan, summed up the moment movingly yesterday. ''It was like watching the last moments of a Greek tragedy, in which the hero is revealed as human, in all his greatness and all his flaws.''

For such a career to end in such a way is a tragedy, and not just for Zinedine Zidane. Other great footballers have destroyed themselves - George Best, Diego Maradona - but usually slowly, in relative seclusion, with a glass or bottle in their hand. Zidane pressed the self-destruct button before the TV-watchers of the world and before 70,000 people in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin (an arena that became a symbol of sporting triumph over racism in the Jesse Owens Olympics 70 years ago).

Zidane the footballer did not destroy Zidane the person. He is, and will remain, a quiet family man with a much-adored wife and two sons. He will doubtless go on to have a quiet, wealthy life after football.

But on Sunday night, Zidane destroyed Zidane the icon, Zidane the political symbol, Zidane the myth. It was almost as if the legend of Zidane had become too great a burden for the man. There are other great players in the France team, but Zidane was the team. Zidane, the son of North African immigrants, was France.

He had agreed, in mysterious circumstances, to return from international retirement to rescue a floundering France team a year ago. He spoke originally of "hearing a voice" at night - like Joan of Arc - before announcing that the voice was actually that of his older brother Farid.

His return was treated by the French press as a significant political event; the unexpected sunburst that could restore the confidence of a nation depressed by high unemployment, the loss of the 2012 Olympic Games and 10 years of Jacques Chirac. Despite his return, Zidane remained famously at loggerheads with the uninspiring France coach, Raymond Domenech. Zizou, not Domenech, is credited with lifting the spirit of the team after a sloppy first-round stage by coining a dressing room battle-cry: "We live together. We will die together."

Poor Zidane. He may be the greatest footballer of his generation but no previous footballer - not even Pele in his prime - has been expected to change the course of his country's economic and political history. Did all of this - the hero-worship, the expectations, the responsibility - finally overwhelm the man?

Although quiet, unassuming and helpful in person, Zidane has always had a low flash-point on the pitch. The Italian players knew it well, because he spent six seasons with Juventus of Turin. In his 17 years as a professional footballer, in almost 800 matches, Zidane had been sent off the pitch 14 times before Sunday night, usually for retaliating against verbal or physical abuse. During the 1998 World Cup, when Zidane was disappointing until the final, he was sent off for viciously stamping on a Saudi Arabian player during an easy game at the Stade de France.

On the pitch, the legend of Zidane as a man of peace and reconciliation has always been a little fragile. And yet, off the pitch, the legend was well deserved. And important.

To the four million French residents of North African origin - especially for the baggy-jeaned, reverse-baseball-cap-wearing young - Zidane is a proof that you can be a beur - a Frenchman of North African descent - and a success in 21st-century France.

There are 577 members of the French national assembly. None is of North African origin. Beur faces are still rare on French television. Apart from Zidane, it should be pointed out, there are few successful French-North African footballers.

The outstanding 1998-2006 generation in French professional football owes much to the rich racial mixture of "Greater France", which has départements and territories on three continents. But French football mines talent most successfully in the Caribbean and African-origin immigrant communities, which produced, among others, Lilian Thuram, Claude Makelele, Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Patrick Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord, all of whom played in the final on Sunday night.

All are popular in France, but none has had the wider political and social impact of Zidane; partly because he was an incomparably elegant, inventive and intelligent footballer, but more importantly because he is of North African origin. In France, the most active racial issue is still fear of Arabs and Islam.

Hopes that the 1998 World Cup success of a brown-white-black team would have a profound affect on racial attitudes in France were long ago proved exaggerated. The xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election in 2002. Last autumn, riots ripped like forest fires through the multiracial, deprived suburbs of scores of French cities and towns.

Interestingly, these riots were often presented by parts of the French and foreign press as a kind of "intifada" by disaffected, anti-French and anti-Western Muslim youth. In truth, the rioters looked just like the France football team: they were black, brown and white. This proves the point: fear of Arabs, or North Africans, is still the core racial issue in France.

Zidane was born in Marseille but his family comes from the Kabyle community in Algeria (which is, ethnically speaking, not Arab). No matter. To the great, white majority - haunted by racial folk memories from the Algerian war and by suspicion of young "Arab" men - Zidane was a relief; a reproach; a counter-argument; a source of joy and pride. His popularity was magnified by the fact that he seemed such an ordinary, shy, level-headed, family-loving man.

The importance of Zidane was that he offered young French people - brown, white and black - a different way of forming their prejudices. The views of the bulk of French people were formed years ago. Even Zidane's supernatural talent would not change their views overnight. But he offered white French children a triumphant and gentle image of North Africans. He offered young beurs a positive self-image not rooted in drugs, violence or rejection of the red, white and blue.

Has all that ended with one head-butt on Sunday night? Not entirely. But imagine the task of the social workers in the suburbs - often North African or African themselves - trying to persuade the lost boys of the poor, suburban 14-18 age group that violence is not always the answer to every problem.

Amar is such a worker in the eastern Paris suburbs. He is of Algerian origin and a passionate fan of Zidane. Yesterday, he was almost in mourning.

"Whatever we say to the kids now - don't fight with the youngsters from the next cité [housing estate], don't attack buses or police cars, don't set fire to cars - their answer will always be: "Et Zizou alors?" - "And what about Zizou then?"

Zinedine Zidane was born on 23 June 1972 in the northern Marseille suburb of La Castellane. At home, he was always Yazid, not Zinedine.

He lived in a tower-block apartment so small that he and his parents, three brothers and one sister had to sit down to eat in shifts. His parents were, by the standards of the neighbourhood, well off. His father worked - as a night-watchman in a department store.

"I never suffered from racism when I was small because all my pals were North Africans or foreigners of some kind," Zidane once said. "Afterwards [as a football apprentice], people weren't racist either. Now, from time to time, I come across them. When people ask me for an autograph, I can tell which ones are the racists. But I sign anyway. I don't think about the parents, I think about the children, who will be happy to have my signature..."

Zidane as a child took no interest in school; he lived only to be with his pals, playing violent games of tag with a tennis ball, which lasted for hours and stretched all over the estate.

From the age of five, he also played football on the strip of pink paving-stones in the housing estate's main square. Wing-play did not exist. It could not; there was no room for the wings. It was fated that Zizou would become a central midfielder.

Zidane's parents, Smail and Malika, emigrated from Algeria in 1953, before the war of independence. Zidane attributes much of his success to his father, to whom he always refers as "mon papa". Zidane's parents now live in a modest villa on the outskirts of Marseille, bought for them by their famous son. "No," Zidane said once: "Bought by 'mon papa', because 'mon papa', c'est moi." This might sound self-conscious and mawkish in another person's mouth; not really in Zidane's.

Yazid left home at 13 to play football for the junior teams in Cannes, then in the French first division. He made his debut at 17 in 1989. Three years later, he moved to Girondins Bordeaux, and in 1996 to Juventus, where he was an outstanding player but never succeeded in becoming an idol of the fans. (Through racism, which is rife in the Italian game? Or Zidane's rather un-Italian, or for that matter un-Algerian, surface coldness?)

In 2001, he moved on to Real Madrid as one of the team of global all-stars, or "galacticos", alongside Ronaldo and later David Beckham. He won the 2002 European Cup for Real Madrid with a stunningly elegant volley.

What makes Zidane such a great footballer? His one-time idol, the former Uruguay and Marseille star Enzo Francescoli, says that Zidane has "mystical" talents. Zidane, he says, has an ability to control the ball accurately with any part of his boot and a capacity to make the ball hover between his ankles, which means it is impossible for his opponents to read what he is going to do next. The "mystical" side of Zidane surfaced, bizarrely, nearly a year ago when he decided to return to the France team. Talking to France Football magazine, he said: "One night at three in the morning, I woke up suddenly and talked to somebody... But nobody knows about it, not even my wife, no one... An irrepressible force came over me at that moment... I had to obey this voice, which was advising me. It's an enigma, but don't try to find an explanation. You will never find it. You will probably never meet this person. Even I cannot explain this meeting."

After a festival of headlines in the French and international press about Zidane's encounter with a disembodied voice, the great man put out a tetchy clarifying statement on his official website. The voice, he explained, was his brother Farid. Zidane has barely spoken to the press since.

It was not a voice so much as a red mist that took possession of Zidane soon after 10pm Berlin time on Sunday night. Neither Zidane, nor any of his team-mates, nor his Italian "victim", have spoken so far of what might have provoked him. David Trezeguet, a team-mate of Zidane at Juventus and still playing in Italy, said the Italian players had been trying to wind him up from the start of the match. All the same, a veteran professional player such as Zidane should have been able to control himself.

President Jacques Chirac and the sports minister Jean-François Lamour went into the dressing room after the match. Chirac spoke to Zidane for a long time. Lamour refused to say what Zidane had said but told journalists that he seemed "tres, tres marqué" - deeply upset. The announcement that Zidane had won the Golden Ball as best player in the 2006 World Cup finals - a decision made at half-time in the match, before his expulsion - did not cheer him up much.

President Chirac, at an Elysée reception for the France team yesterday afternoon, heaped praise, and love, on Zidane on behalf of the nation.

"Dear Zinedine Zidane," he said. "You are going through perhaps the hardest moment of your career but you are a virtuoso, a genius, a man of the heart... a man who proves that France is strong when it is united in all its diversity." Zidane, however, failed to appear on the balcony of the Crillon hotel with the rest of the France squad after the official reception.

Chirac apart, the French press and politicians were not inclined to be too hard on Zidane yesterday. They did not blame him for losing the game. They speculated on the dastardly nature of the insults deployed by Marco Materazzi. "Why? That's what we all want to know," was the headline in the France Football website.

Mostly, press and politicians bewailed the loss of a legend. Le Monde said in its editorial: "A man, the son of Algerian immigrants, placed on a pinnacle by a whole country, whose fairy story was admired by the whole world, became with one gesture a bad example to thousands of children in the housing estates who dream of being a future Zizou."

Marie-Georges Buffet, the leader of the Communist Party, said Zidane's action was "unpardonable" and would encourage children to believe that violence was the answer to life's problems.

Only Cohn-Bendit tried to understand Zidane the man. "Those who say you have to control your temper at that level are right," he said. "But you have to remember that this is someone who has struggled to succeed all his life. He remains a child of the [poor] suburbs, which is why the suburbs identify with him... Life is a fight for him and, yes, there are moments when you blow a fuse."

Except that Zidane did not blow a fuse. Not exactly. There were a couple of seconds when he, plainly, intended to walk away. There were another couple of seconds when he stared at Materazzi. Then he ran towards him.

It was almost as if Zizou made a conscious decision, before one billion people, to retire, not just from football, but from the Zidane legend.

Disbelief and dismay: the French reaction

A man of humble origins, who was only yesterday being praised to the skies by a whole country, has become, with a single gesture, a bad example to the thousands of city kids who dreamed of becoming "Zizou". - 'LE MONDE' EDITORIAL

Zidane was overcome by the dark side that... had already showed itself in the qualifying stages (where he picked up two yellow cards) and in the match against Saudi Arabia in 1998.... Flying off the handle in that way is extraordinary at this level. It was hard to believe. The experienced, shy Zidane left the field because of a fault worthy of a rookie or a daredevil. A real tragedy, a sad goodbye. Zidane will remain a hero. A complex hero. - JEAN-MICHEL NORMAND, 'LE MONDE' COLUMNIST

For over a month, France dreamt with Zidane. This morning, she will wake up with Chirac. - 'LIBERATION' EDITORIAL

Thank you all the same to Zinedine Zidane for all the touches of pure beauty that he gave us in more than a hundred appearances for Les Bleus - until 9 July 2006, the date of his retirement and of an unacceptable act of revenge.... Last night, we were speechless in the face of such a stupid act. - 'LE FIGARO' EDITORIAL

Zidane ruined his exit, but we mustn't remember only that about Zizou, we know what he's done throughout his career, and he has made a partial success of this World Cup. - EMMANUEL PETIT, FORMER FRENCH INTERNATIONAL

Zidane is in the locker room, he's unhappy, we have to leave him alone. I have nothing to ask him. I simply shook his hand for his service to French football. But I didn't talk to him. We have to leave him in his sadness and not annoy him. But I don't think his head-butt had an effect on the result. Most of all, we mustn't shoot the artist. - JEAN-PIERRE ESCALETTES, PRESIDENT OF THE FRENCH FOOTBALL FEDERATION

What I want to say to you at this most difficult moment of your career is that the whole nation has admiration and affection for you, and respects you. You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football, and you are also a man of heart, of commitment, of conviction. That is why France admires and loves you. - PRESIDENT JACQUES CHIRAC, RECEIVING THE TEAM AT THE ELYSEE PALACE

Despite all his education, Zidane is still a boy from the banlieues, that's why the banlieues identify with him. For him, life is a struggle, and there are times when you lose your fuse. - DANIEL COHN-BENDIT, GREEN MEP

Why did Zizou do it? Who is Materazzi to deserve a reaction like that from Zidane? What came over him? For God's sake, you just can't finish your career in that way! Zizou didn't deserve that. That sending off was like a collapse for me.... I feel empty. - AIMÉ JACQUET, COACH OF FRANCE'S 1998 WORLD CUP-WINNING TEAM

Selected and translated by Jastinder Khera

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