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Some Heady Play From a Reluctant Superhero

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 13, 1998; Page C1

 Zinedine Zidane (center) celebrates after his first goal with teammates Emmanuel Petit (right) and Christian Karembeu. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)
SAINT-DENIS, France — He's probably the most gifted midfielder in Europe, but he's been known for both good and bad performances at the hub of his Italian club, Juventus. In France his inconsistencies have been overlooked and he's been hailed for the past three years as the new hero of French soccer. His name is Zinedine Zidane, nicknamed "Zizou."

On his best days, he has been referred to as the new Michel Platini, until now France's most famous player. But Sunday night Zinedine Zidane did something Platini never was able to — lead France to the World Cup championship. In so doing, Zidane became not only the most successful French player ever but also the most famous soccer player in the world.

Brazil was favored to win the 16th World Cup at Stade de France and the shaven-headed Ronaldo was expected to emerge in the championship game as the tournament's shining star. Instead, it was the less-glamorous Zidane, a baldish 26-year-old son of Algerian immigrants who grew up in a poor section of Marseille known as La Castellane. Sunday night Zidane made soccer history — for himself and for his country.

By heading home the game's first two goals, he pointed France to an unprecedented 3-0 rout of Brazil. He made it possible for a country that failed to qualify for the past two World Cups to become only the seventh nation to win a Cup and the first new one since Argentina in 1978. Zidane showed France the way to the most resounding defeat ever suffered by Brazil in the World Cup finals and all its World Cup qualifying matches.

Zidane's epic performance ignited one of the wildest celebrations in French history. By some accounts, not since the liberation of France from German forces in 1945 have so many red, white and blue flags streamed across the land. France not only beat the four-time World Cup winners at their game, but overwhelmed them — cause for the country-wide outbreak of nationalist fervor. Did Nostradamus, the 16th century prophet from Provence who foretold the future up to the year 3797, call this one?

Zidane, as recently as Thursday, told reporters at the French camp outside Paris that he believed it was possible to beat Brazil. "All we have to do," he said, "is score one more than Brazil and if that goal could be mine, it would be wonderful." Could he possibly have dreamed of scoring twice and winning by three? Could the Brazilians have imagined the nightmare this final would be for them?

Ronaldo was ailing. He has missed Brazil's recent practices, said to be troubled by an ankle injury. Although it seemed awfully late, he was reported to have visited a hospital just before the game, arriving at Stade de France after his teammates. His name did not appear in the starting lineups that were distributed to the media 45 minutes before game time. But a few minutes later, new lineups were given out and Ronaldo was included. After the game, Brazil's coach, Mario Zagallo, said the team suffered "a major traumatic shock" knowing Ronaldo would not be fit.

Zidane, meanwhile, had suffered troubles of another kind. He had been ejected from a first-round match against Saudia Arabia for treading on an opponent — which may sound worse than the incident appeared. He was suspended for two games, which seemed too severe a penalty, especially considering that the second game fell in the knockout round of 16. France was saved by defender Laurent Blanc, who made the first "golden goal" in World Cup history, scoring in sudden-death overtime to beat Paraguay, enable France to continue and give Zidane another chance.

In Wednesday's 2-1 semifinal victory over Croatia, Les Bleus went to Zidane, hoping he could score. They have a shortage of talented strikers, and looked to Zidane rather desperately for help. But several plays failed to produce a good scoring opportunity. France again managed the victory when another defender, Lilian Thuram, scored his first two goals for the national team. Sunday, Zidane again came forward from midfield several times but again did not get a good scoring chance early. Then, just as Brazil seemed to be taking charge of the game with three scoring chances, Zidane struck.

By redirecting two corner kicks with a flick of his head, he altered the course of World Cup history. As a boy, he dreamed big dreams — but not that big. He wanted to grow up to play for Olympique Marseille. He played soccer on concrete in his impoverished neighborhood and rooted for the home club. His early accomplishments took him to Cannes for two seasons before he joined Bordeaux in 1992. That's where he blossomed. His first glory came in March 1996 in a UEFA Cup game against powerful AC Milan. Just two weeks before, he had played poorly against the same team, but in the rematch he inspired a victory by the now-familiar score of 3-0.

Bordeaux finished second in that tournament, but Zidane's fame was growing. The prestigious Juventus team in the top Italian league bought his contract, and off he went to Turin, following in Platini's footsteps. In the past two years there, Zidane came close to achieving major goals, but he still found himself on the losing side in the past two European Cup finals. "I'm aware that I still have to do more," he said before the World Cup. "Above all, I've got to score more goals and show a greater continuity. This is different. This is not a club match. We're playing for a whole country."

Most often, Zidane does not reveal his emotions. A family man, he has a son, Enzo, whom he named for a hero of his youth, a former Olympic Marseille player from Uruguay, Enzo Francescoli. During this World Cup, Zidane has shown emotions. Watching the Paraguay game from the bench, he looked anxious and restless — worried that France was about to lose without him. Back for the quarterfinal against Italy, which France won on penalty kicks after a scoreless tie, he appeared off his game. He looked sullen. But he played much better against Croatia, and after the few failed scoring attempts settled into his specialty of distributing the ball. He passed 43 times in that game, reaching a teammate on 42 of them.

Zidane often speaks so softly it's hard to hear him, as it was the other day at France's training center in Clairefontaine when he said: "We have the chance to go down in history. We must grasp this chance." He answered four questions and was excused. It was more of the same Sunday night. Zidane sped through the mixed zone, where players meet with reporters, as if rushing upfield with the ball. "My teammates asked me to score goals and I did," he said. "It's not my specialty, but I did it. ... It was the most important match of my life. It hasn't sunk in yet. It will dawn on me tomorrow. The only thing that I know is that the Cup will stay in France for the next four years. We will be celebrating tomorrow and I'll be thinking about everyone tonight."

For sure, everyone will be thinking about Zidane. Because of him, all of France was united Sunday night. The world's best soccer team was theirs.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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