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Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Once and Future France

Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Zinédine Zidane will lead France in Sunday’s
World Cup final against Italy.

France's Aging Magician Conjures a Final Trick
Published: July 9, 2006

BERLIN, July 8 — His shaved head glistening, sweat beading off his chin, the French midfielder Zinédine Zidane set up for a penalty kick in the World Cup semifinals with revived and direct intent.

The Portuguese goalkeeper knew exactly where the shot was going, but he could only dive helplessly as the kick rocketed inside the left goal post. That goal in Wednesday's game proved decisive in a 1-0 victory that put France in the World Cup final against Italy here Sunday and illustrated Zidane's masterly assurance and control at age 34, even as he plans to retire after the championship match.

With a victory, France would secure its second World Cup title in eight years and Zidane would cement his position as perhaps soccer's greatest player of the last 20 years. He is a modest man who summons an elegant flamboyance on the field. Yet his performance here has been as improbable as it has been rejuvenating, and he has led what France's coach, Raymond Domenech, affectionately calls "a little team of old men" to the brink of a title.

For the French to win, Zidane will have to lead a successful attack against an Italian team that has displayed an impenetrable defense, allowing one goal — a ball kicked into its own net in a match against the United States — so far in the tournament.

"It's amazing that someone 34 is still able to do such incredible things on the pitch," the French defender Willy Sagnol said of Zidane. "He is a natural leader. It is a pleasure to follow in his footsteps."

Another teammate, Lilian Thuram, said, "It is others who should be stopping, not him."

Zidane did stop once already. He had no intention of participating in this tournament, leaving France's national team in 2004, two years after it embarrassingly exited the 2002 World Cup in the first round without scoring. He was coaxed to return by a coach seeking one last flicker of greatness, and by what Zinédine Zidane (pronounced ZIN-ay-deen zee-DAHN) has described as an eerie nighttime visit from a mystical figure, all very French and inexplicable.

His comeback was alternately welcomed, met with skepticism, then disparaged by many fans and by the French news media. Zidane appeared slow and old as France failed to win its first two matches of this World Cup, and he was disqualified from the third match after receiving two yellow-card warnings for excessive fouls.

The son of Algerian émigrés, Zidane was even accused of mumbling "La Marseillaise," France's national anthem, by the far-right politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the anti-immigration National Front, who has complained that there are too many members of minority groups on the World Cup team.

"We are proud to represent this country," Thuram told reporters in rebuke of Le Pen. "So vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants."

The French team represents the future of France. Simple as that.

posted by Steve @ 3:17:00 AM

3:17:00 AM

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