Zidane’s dead, he retired the second he planted that headbutt into Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final. He was France’s excuse as a nation: they were always able to point to him and pretend that their country wasn’t falling apart on racial faultlines; to the way he had won France its World Cup in 1998 and were able to blindly say, “But look, even Algerians can make it to the top in France if they apply themselves.” Meanwhile the real Algerians remained marginalised and unemployed in shithole suburbs at the end of the Parisian and Marseille trainlines while CVs with Algerian (or Senegalese or any sort of Arab or African) names were proven in a French study to be immediately thrown into the bin by French employers.
I was fascinated by the French soccer team. Even though each game was a struggle, somehow they were winners. They were a motley collection of Algerians, Caribbeans, Africans, Frenchmen all who were mostly first or second generation. There was Patrick Vieira, the man who as an ex-Senegalese lined up for France in World Cup 2002 against, yes, Senegal, who themselves were a team full of first-generation Frenchmen. That’s postcolonialism for you. And Senegal won!
I couldn’t really get a read on Zidane as a soccer player. He thought better than other players, faster: he played soccer with a one-touch style (that is, thinking ahead so that he already knew where he would pass the ball even before he received it, thus moving the ball on with a single touch without maintaining possession). It’s a trait I admire and a way I always felt was the best way to play in my own shitty little soccer games. Zidane had an innate sense of the field, but he would sometimes fade in and out of games. My hero on the French team was not in fact Zidane but his ‘rival’ for the French team’s number one, Thierry Henry. Henry had an all-action style, always involved with the play, whereas Zidane didn’t know how to get his own ball, so that if he wasn’t supplied by other teammates he got lost.
People are seldom able to think as fast as Zidane, on field (and nor are there many who can think fast off it). Most players are ball-hogs, both at local level and internationally. Zidane and Henry did not gel that well, and in fact until Henry’s famous goal that killed Brazil at World Cup 2006 (see below) they had never combined for a French goal. They both existed as the French focus, separate but equal, tying France over for four tournaments without having much to do with each other.
I loved the French team back in the day. They were almost Latin in their elegance, almost Germanic in their pragmatic efficiency to win all of the close matches, almost African in their physical strength and, well, blackness, almost Italian in their defensive strength. I was not a Zidane fan as such but he was indisputably the man. Now that he’s gone I just can’t bring myself to care about France’s results anymore, their terrible Euro 2008.
When they won Euro 2000 against the hated Italian team (although I now admire Italy since they won WC 2006) after Italy were seconds away from winning I was utterly overjoyed by the way it had happened; the good guys had won. And then in 2006 after I was sure that France were now irrelevant and finished as a force they, and Zidane, turned the clock back out of nowhere and beat all the same teams that they had in 2000. It was as if God made deal just with me: you liked France’s 2000 so much, here it is all over again. They beat Spain again by scoring goals, by having it, a force which Spain, for all their pretty ball possession, did not have. They beat Portugal again with a Zidane penalty. They beat Brazil again (those arrogant pricks totally needed to be put in their place; France is their daddy). All that was left was to beat Italy in the Final again.
Zidane chipped a beautiful penalty in at the start of the 2006 World Cup Final. But after that Henry’s buzzing was the only x-factor of the standoffish match. Ten minutes from the end Zidane’s header was saved by the Italian goalkeeper. If it had gone in Zidane would have been the two-goal hero just like 1998, France would be World Champions again completely against the formguide and my life would have been just wonderful. But it got saved and three minutes later he headbutted Materazzi and was sent off. In spirit that moment was the end of the 2006 World Cup; the penalty shootout afterwards felt oddly empty even as it was happening. There wasn’t a chance in hell that France would win the penalty shootout after all that.
He was the French team. When he trudged past the World Cup trophy on display as he was sent off, there trudged off the French team with him, leaving a bunch of ghosts to take the penalties. And then Italy won – think about how many trillions of times anyone has ever kicked a ball anywhere; Fabio Grosso’s winning penalty was the single most important kick of all of them, ever – and I quietly turned off the TV. I couldn’t bear to see the rest, the Italian happiness.
Zidane was from Marseille. Did he come from a place where you just don’t let insults against one’s sister slide, damn the consequences (even when the World Cup is on the line in the next ten minutes)? He must have had some sort of anger within him, a need to achieve, driving his career. I think most top athletes – apart from the insanely gifted ones like Roger Federer – have something fierce inside them, something that needs to set them apart from others, at the expense of others particularly. It actually wasn’t the first time that Zidane headbutted someone in his career.
Oh well. At least they all have 1998 and 2000. It’s funny talking about Zidane and Henry both underachieving in their insanely successful careers but those twin French victories came so early in their careers that I have to wonder if there will still be regrets for each of them.