Zidane inspiring France with his impressive last stand
Posted: Saturday July 1, 2006 7:48PM; Updated: Saturday July 1, 2006 9:30PM
Zinédine Zidane (center) isn't playing like a 34-year-old on the verge of retirement.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
HAMBURG, Germany -- I still remember the first time I saw the best soccer player of his generation: June 23, 1996, France vs. Holland, European Championship quarterfinals. We were staying at the house of my wife's uncle Gérard in Briançon, France, when a prematurely balding figure named Zinédine Zidane appeared on the television screen.
Uncle Gérard and I communicate in a sort of soccer-y Franglish, and this is what he said when he turned to me that day: "That is Zidane. Genial!"
He sure didn't look like one. There was the whole hair-loss issue, of course, and Zidane wasn't particularly fast or strong, nor was he very dangerous in the air. But with a ball at his feet he could do the most magical things: all sorts of unpredictable drags and feints, feather-weighted passes, 360-degree spins that left defenders tackling his jetwash.
There was only one problem: Zizou couldn't win the big game. His nickname was Le Chat Noir, the Black Cat, and Euro '96 was no different. France survived the Dutch on penalties the first day I saw him, but Les Bleus would fall in the semis to the Czech Republic.
That all changed on July 12, 1998. On a glorious summer night at the Stade de France, Les Bleus did the unthinkable, upsetting Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final. And so, too, did Zizou, who not only scored the first two goals but did so with his head. I still have the next day's front page of L'Equipe, the French sports daily, in my office at home. The gigantic headline reads, simply, Pour L'Eternité. For Eternity.
Perhaps one reason I get emotional thinking about Zizou is because I have my own story from that night in Paris. As a 24-year-old rookie writing my first big magazine story, I made a huge mistake, leaving my laptop back at my apartment near the Bastille in Paris. Little did I know that more than three million Parisians would clog the streets that night, stopping traffic in its tracks.
Stuck in a motionless bus at 2 a.m., I finally got out near the Arc de Triomphe --where Merci Zizou was being projected onto its facade -- and began walking, dodging the hordes on the Champs Elysees as I desperately tried to imagine a story that would put Zidane's historic feat in the proper perspective.
Over the next three hours, as I walked through the most raucous French celebration since the Liberation, the words started to tumble out, and I would stop and write them in my notebook:
In Saint-Denis, the Paris suburb where the French once buried their kings, a new one ascended last week. ...
By the time I got back to the apartment at 5 a.m., I had already come up with more than half of a 2,000-word magazine story on Zidane that was due just a few hours later. Eight years on, I still give Zidane the credit for being the muse I needed that night when I could have blown my chance at this writing gig. Merci, Zizou.
In a sense Zidane has been playing with house money ever since. He led France to the European title in 2000, earning Les Bleus comparisons with some of the best teams of all time. But an injured Zidane was the symbol of France's disastrous 2002 World Cup -- no goals in three games -- and Zizou's reign appeared over for good when his team bowed out to Greece in the quarterfinals of Euro 2004 and his Real Madrid teams stopped winning trophies.
All of which makes Zidane's resurgence in this World Cup, at age 34, something bordering on a miracle. He has already announced his retirement from soccer once this tournament is over. He already has a secure historical legacy. And yet in France's last two stunning victories -- over Spain in the second round and Saturday night over runaway favorite Brazil -- Zidane has somehow found the inspiration that we thought had been lost. His late goal against Spain brought a smile to any neutral observer's face, but his absolute command of the Brazil game was a reminder to everyone: When someone is the transcendent player of his generation, that makes him awfully special indeed. I couldn't help but think of Uncle Gérard watching the game in Briançon, nursing a red wine and screaming, "Genial!!!"
The term genius is not one to be taken lightly. How many true geniuses can one field produce in a lifetime? One? Three? A dozen? Soccer is no different. The last undisputed genius of fútbol was probably Diego Maradona. In my mind, Zidane has now joined him.