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Volume 49, Number 5September/October 1998

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Rhapsody in Bleu

Written by George Baramki Azar

French soccer midfielder Zinedine Zidane rose to the challenge of the World Cup in epic style. His crowning two-goal performance in the Cup final July 12th turned an unlikely dream into astonishing reality as he led the underdog French national team, Les Bleus, to a 3-0 rout of the supposedly invincible Brazilian soccer machine. Around the world, fans and writers called Zizou's game one of the greatest in World Cup history.

As the final whistle sounded and the French squad swarmed onto the field past the stunned Brazilians, Paris exploded in the wildest celebration since its liberation from Nazi occupation half a century ago. In every part of the French capital, young and old, rich and poor poured onto the streets. Car horns resounded in a chorus of chaos and trainloads of strangers aboard the Paris Metro erupted into boisterous renditions of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem.

Within two hours of the victory, a crowd estimated at more than a million people turned the Champs Elysees into a sea of celebration, of which Zidane was clearly the hero: The chant "Zizou for president!" kept recurring. Unfazed, President Jacques Chirac, who had attended the match, declared, "This is the best day of my life."

French coach Aimé Jacquet summed up the feelings of the nation: "Zinedine brought light to the match."

But something more than celebration was happening. In the cheering crowds, along with scores of French flags, numerous Algerian flags were also borne aloft, recognizing and celebrating Zizou's heritage. In that night and the weeks that followed, Zidane became more than just a sports hero, however magnificent. He became a Jackie Robinson figure, a symbol of the resurgence of the revolutionary French principle of fraternité, or brotherhood, a principle much dented in recent years and today broadly interpreted as multiculturalism.

It appears that France's pride in having this team, ethnically mixed, capture the World Cup for the nation was almost as strong as the thrill of the unexpected victory itself. The nation has been embarrassed in the past two decades by inter-ethnic tensions and the increasingly significant percentage of the French vote that has gone to a party that advocates wholesale expulsion of North Africans and other immigrants. But France succeeded in the World Cup by embracing ethnic diversity, not denying it. Les Bleus were the most diverse of all the 32 teams that competed: Its members trace their roots to North and sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Russia and Armenia, as well as France.

Unlike most other French institutions, which remain—unofficially but effectively—largely closed to foreign-born, non-Christian citizens, Les Bleus reflected in the international competition of the World Cup what many consider the real face of France at the close of the 20th century. The victory was an occasion when France's immigrants could feel they belonged.

Zidane's brilliance on the field in the final match, and his well-known dignity and modesty off the field, have transformed him into a symbol of reconciliation that the country has embraced.

"All of us are like Zidane," explained a woman running an Algerian café near the Stade de France to the San Francisco Chronicle. "He is so close to our feelings.... He represents us. We can only watch the games on TV [because of high ticket prices], but when Zizou is playing I feel more French than the French."

Laurent Joffrin, news editor of the Paris daily Libération, observed, "For the marginalized sections of the population, the World Cup may have been an ephemeral opening, an illusion of fraternity. But such illusions are useful: They can alter people's minds."

Le Monde called on the nation to study what it called "the Jacquet paradigm," after the French coach, telling children, teachers, politicians and businessmen to build their own winning teams "without exclusion or prejudice."

"Zidane and Desailly [France's Ghana-born star defender] have done more for integration in this country than years of well-intentioned policies," added Michèle Tribalat, a demographer and writer on immigration.

The impact of the victory was magnified by the team's status as lowly underdogs. Going into the tournament, Les Bleus were ranked 17th, even below the United States. The Times of London named the French team "least likely to...win the World Cup." Brazil's victory was so universally expected that, according to an American reporter covering the final game, most of the international press had filed their advance stories before the game, to be used "when Brazil wins."

Zinedine, Zidane's first name, means "beauty of the faith" in Arabic. He is the son of an Algerian night watchman from Kabylia, a predominantly Berber region some 200 kilometers (125 mi) east of Algiers. The 1.85-meter (6'1") midfielder learned to play soccer on the rough gravel lots that pass for playing fields in La Castellane, a rough Marseilles suburb—some call it a slum—where he still maintains close ties to family and friends.

Thoughtful, modest and even shy, Zizou is widely regarded as the best playmaker in the world. Yet he takes every opportunity to say, in a voice that rarely rises above a whisper, that he is just another member of the team. Others, including teammates, disagree.

Number 10 is of such importance to Les Bleus that before the tournament his teammates conceded that winning the World Cup was inconceivable without him. "We all know how important Zizou is," said French captain Didier Deschamps. "Our attacking game depends almost entirely upon him."

"When somebody does not know what to do with the ball," adds midfielder Emmanuel Petit, "he gives it to Zizou, and he figures out instantly what the best solution is."

On the field, Zidane dominates games with grace, intelligence and guile, and there seems to be thought behind his every move. "I must dribble as little as possible," he says. "One, two, three touches—no more—and a pass at the right moment." During the final, he made one pass by heading the ball 12 meters (40') backward—where he clearly could not see straight to teammate Marcel Desailly's feet.

Much of his playmaking, however, has been fruitless work. "There are few better in the world than Zidane at supplying the bullets," wrote The Times, "but where are the French musketeers to shoot them?" During the run for the world championship, France's notoriously weak forwards squandered one perfect pass after another from Zizou, who never publicly showed disappointment at the missed chances.

Yet an uncharacteristic lapse in a first-round match against Saudi Arabia almost transformed Zidane from star to scapegoat. Late in the game, with France cruising to the victory that would qualify them for the second round, Zidane trampled Saudi captain Fuad Amin, who had gone down at his feet. It was a blatant, though not brutal, foul, and the referee showed Zidane the red card, expelling him from the game. More important, he received a two-game suspension.

With Zidane out of the lineup, France went on to top Denmark, but struggled against a tough Paraguayan defense in the second round. That match was tied 0-0 at the end of regulation time, and only a "golden goal" by Laurent Blanc in sudden-death overtime saw the French through to the round of 16.

"It's been very hard without Zidane," Jacquet told reporters afterward. "He's the team leader and playmaker, and...we hope he will come back and...carry the French team forward."

Zidane's return did give the squad a boost, and France moved its game up a notch to beat 1994 finalists Italy and then dispatch the surprise team of the tournament, Croatia. The victories earned Les Bleus their first-ever appearance in a World Cup final.

With French hopes on the line, it looked as if Zidane's genius might again fall victim to poor play by the French strikers. In the opening minutes of the final, Zidane delivered a pass to Stephane Guivarc'h as the French forward sped towards the Brazilian goal. In his eagerness, Guivarc'h stumbled and sent only a weak kick into the hands of Brazilian goalie Claudio Taffarel.

In the 27th minute of the game, on a corner kick, Zizou took it on himself to put the ball into the net. He broke free of Brazil's captain Dunga and out-jumped their star midfielder Leonardo to head the ball past Taffarel.

Nineteen minutes later he did it again, this time on a corner from the other side of the field, scoring again on Leonardo and on the man many consider the world's greatest player, the Brazilian striker Ronaldo. The unthinkable French 2-0 lead was all Zizou's. Emmanuel Petit's goal in the final minute put the match on ice.

That night, the team members' faces were projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, France's most sacred national monument. As night turned to morning, the crowd continued to chant, "Zi-zou! Zi-zou! Zi-zou!"

"This closes a chapter in French history," wrote historian Benjamin Stora of Zidane and the 1998 World Cup, "because it shows one can remain faithful to Algeria and yet be for France, that one can be a Muslim and be fully French."

George Azar, free-lance photojoumalist, is the author ofPalestine: A Photographic Journey, published by the University of California Press. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article appeared on pages 36-39 of the September/October 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1998 images.