Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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A last tango?

    Ah, he had us going for a minute there. On April Fool’s Day, an article appeared in L’Equipe claiming that Zinedine Zidane was about to reverse his decision to quit international football, and come to the rescue of his country who are making very unconvincing progress in the World Cup qualifiers. L’Equipe assured us the quotes were genuine, despite the day on which they were published. It refers to the French trip to Dublin in September to play the Republic of Ireland. "To come back for that game, play in front of 50,000 Irish fans, win and then leave again - that would suit me fine!" Zidane is alleged to have said. What a spectacle – perhaps the deciding match of the group, Zidane back to lead his team and in direct opposition to another famously returned face to international football, Roy Keane. Imagine that.

    Well, imagine it is all you can do, as it isn’t going to happen. Zidane has insisted that his comments were misconstrued, and he is sticking by his original decision. In an actual quote from the man himself he stated "I don't want to think I'm the saviour of the team and I don't want people to think I'm the saviour of the team. Such behaviour would be pure conceit and I never behave like that." So that will be that then. No comeback, and no white knight for the beleaguered coach Raymond Domenech, who had been in raptures at the prospect.

    It is not difficult to see why they want him back so badly. France have had many high profile retirements from the international scene in recent years, but none have carried the weight of impact that was felt by the departure of Zidane. Laurent Blanc retired after Euro 2000 and Lillian Thuram and Marcel Desailly after Euro 2004, but France remain sound defensively and have only conceded one goal in their qualifying campaign thus far. Midfield enforcers and protectors of the back four like Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit have been and gone, but Patrick Viera has comfortably filled the hole. Creative influences like Youri Djorkaeff and Christophe Dugarry have moved on, but Robert Pires and latterly Ludovik Giuly have filled the breach. And yet still something is missing, the X factor that makes a good team a great team. In other words, Zinedine Zidane.

    The magnitude of what this man has achieved cannot be overstated. For a start, he has won the holy trinity of world football – the World Cup, the European Championships and the European Cup. In every single instance he was the decisive factor. At the World Cup, he overcame a moment of lunacy that cost him a red card in the first round to inspire his team to victory over Brazil in the final. He scored twice and was outstanding against a Brazil midfield containing Dunga, Rivaldo and Leonardo. Two years later he was by general consensus the best player in the best football tournament ever witnessed, Euro 2000, which France won in some style. Two years on from that, he settled the European Champions League final in Real Madrids favour with a left foot volley of a ball that dropped a good thirty metres out of the sky, which he sent rocketing into the roof of the net. If a better goal has been scored in a major European final, I certainly haven’t seen it.

    Throw in with that lot two league titles with Juventus and one with Real Madrid, three World Player of the Year trophies and one European Footballer of the Year plus other assorted cups and individual prizes, and you start to realise why Real Madrid smashed the world transfer record to the tune of 45 million pounds in the summer of 2001 to take him away from Turin.

    Every time France needed a creative outlet or a calming influence, Zidane was the one they looked to. With great talent comes great responsibility, and his team-mates became more and more dependent upon him. His injury prior to the 2002 World Cup was a disaster for the tournament, and then for his team – without him they scored no goals and picked up a solitary point as they were sent packing after the first round. He was wheeled out to try and save the day in the final game against Denmark, but at barely 60% of his capacity and with a heavily strapped thigh, it only served to prove that he is, after all, only human.

    After Euro 2004 he decided to call time on his international career, his last great act coming against England in the first game where he dealt a puncturing blow to Anglo-Saxon confidence by scoring the equaliser in the ninety-first minute and the penalty-spot winner in the ninety-third. With 93 caps, a player with greater vanity may have stayed on to reach the magical century, but this is not his style. His decision to retire internationally is without doubt to extend his club career and not, as is often bandied about in such circumstances, that he doesn’t have what it takes at ‘international level’ any more. Champions League fixtures with Juventus are infinitely more taxing than qualifying games against Israel and Switzerland. After all he has achieved, and at thirty-two years old, he deserves the extra few weeks off a year.

    There is also the quite unedifying prospect that the comeback could fail – France may still not qualify, and what will have been the point? He has not enjoyed a great season with Real, scoring only four goals in an under-achieving team, as the ridiculous ‘Galactico’s’ experiment reaches its tedious conclusion. He may well be in decline, it is hard to tell. His play now is more considered, more based on simple retention of the ball and picking his passes. The Zidane of lore, the greatest player the world has seen since Maradona, is probably gone forever. Nevertheless his departure has gutted the French midfield, in more ways than one, and they will have to find ways to cope without him.

    Part of me of course wants him to step out onto Lansdowne Road in September and roll back the years, save his team and then decide this retiring thing was a big mistake and commit himself to playing in 2006. Another part of me is glad this won’t happen. Time waits for no man, and I think Germany 2006 could be a tournament too far even for a player of his considerable abilities. His talismanic prescence is sorely missed, but what remains of the French squad, which still has World Cup-winning potential, will have to get over it and find itself new leaders. Fans of Thierry Henry often bemoan the supposed scandal that he has never been World or European player of the year. At 27 and with a considerable history of disappearing when it matters most, it’s about time he did something to justify such a reputation. Steering this French qualification campaign away from the rocks would be a good place to start.

    As for Zidane, far better I think that his career with France should now live on only in the memory. Whilst not quite in the echelons of Maradona and Pele, when we recall what Zidane has achieved in future his name will be rightly be mentioned in the company of all other great players to have graced the game.



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