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Zizou's Ejection Produces a Bitter French Whine

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, June 21, 1998; Page D1

PARIS — So after all the teams had played one game at the World Cup, the grand pooh-bah of international soccer wasn't satisfied. FIFA President Sepp Blatter decided that the referees were playing their cards, their reds and yellows, too close to the vest — actually they were keeping them inside their vests. On Wednesday, Blatter reminded the officials that they were supposed to be tougher this World Cup on rough play, specifically "dangerous tackling." On Thursday, the World Cup suddenly looked like an auto race with officials waving reds to stop and yellows for caution.

Now the referees were playing their cards and, just like that, World Cup players unexpectedly were taking their warnings with a yellow or shutting down their engines with a red. Thursday was like a roundup of criminals, with five red cards and 11 yellows issued in two games. Among the booked culprits, however, was no average world sensation but somebody even bigger. In the 70th minute of a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, which clinched a place for the French in the round of 16, the host country's best player — probably its second-best player in history to Michel Platini — was red-carded.

Zinedine Zidane, the fabulous "Zizou," was sent off, to the amazement of the crowd of 80,000 that was singing the Marseillaise and celebrating one of France's biggest victories in years in the Stade de France in Saint-Denis — and to the shock, as well, of French fans throughout the country. The red card meant that "Zizou" had been banished for at least the third game of the first round.

But on Friday, FIFA's disciplinary committee banned Zidane for two games. They banned Alfred Phiri of South Africa for three games, because of an incident in the South Africa-Denmark game. But hardly a Frenchman had heard of Alfred Phiri, and South Africa was going to play only one more game in this World Cup anyway. But a two-game penalty for "Zizou"? From Lens to Marseille, there was outrage. This outrage, it must be said, did not manifest itself in every Paris cafe; some Parisians, at least those who haven't gone on vacation to avoid the World Cup, are so blase that if "Zizou" sat down at their table they might have him removed.

But the footballing French understood the hard facts, that their team will be without its gifted midfielder not only Wednesday in its last first-round match against Denmark, but more significantly in its round of 16 game when a loss would eliminate the French. Zidane won't be eligible until the quarterfinals — if France can reach the quarterfinals without him. The French have worked for years to assemble a team that would do them proud in their World Cup, maybe even win it with luck. Then Blatter tinkered, Platini as France's organizing committee chief agreed and the referees emptied their decks of cards. French fans were left to wonder what will happen now that their star has been dealt out.

"It's a real pity for the France team to have lost Zidane prematurely," said former French national coach Michel Hidalgo, expressing the sentiment of the French soccer element. Can you imagine this World Cup being played in Brazil and Ronaldo being banned for two games? FIFA would have to take its World Cup and get out of the country. What if we were in Italy and Roberto Baggio got a two-game sentence? What Italian taxi driver would stop for Sepp Blatter?

No question, Zidane was guilty. He orchestrated the rout of Saudi Arabia but then stepped on a Saudi Arabian midfielder intentionally. Had he fouled similarly in France's first game, a 3-0 victory over South Africa, he no doubt would have received a yellow card. But Blatter spoke and the guillotine fell. Denmark's goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, reacted with outrage after getting a yellow during a 1-1 tie Thursday with South Africa. "Blatter should look after his own business," Schmeichel said. "Until our match, the refereeing was good. There was no need to change it."

French soccer fans actually had been worried that Zidane might be booked ever since FIFA threatened its crackdown. They know that their No. 10 has a quick temper. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, even humble off the field, Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, has been prone to losing his cool in the midst of action. It's the only flaw in his game. The French captain, Didier Deschamps, said, "I think that the decision was on the harsh side even though I don't excuse what he did. To help Zizou overcome his ordeal, we have all offered him a few words of comfort."

Aime Jacquet, France's coach, professed that France will continue successfully even without Zidane and striker Christophe Dugarry, who suffered a badly pulled hamstring against Saudi Arabia, left the field on crutches and may be out for two weeks, presuming France has two weeks. Coming out of Group C, France has another problem. It must play a team from the tough Group D, "the Group of Death," in the round of 16.

Meanwhile, Platini has had some second thoughts about the confusion among referees that he helped create. Now he says that the referees must strike a happy medium. Ironically, Platini is a long time admirer of Zidane. Once a star for Juventus of Turin, Platini helped persuade Juventus to sign Zidane. Now Platini, inadvertently or not, has had a role in the banishment of France's beloved Zizou and left the home team vulnerable. Platini must hope that he hasn't dampened France's party, which he put together.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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