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Coup de Grâce
Grant Wahl
July 20, 1998
Zinedine Zidane scored twice with his head to seize the hearts of a nation—and France's World Cup
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July 20, 1998

Coup De Grâce

Zinedine Zidane scored twice with his head to seize the hearts of a nation—and France's World Cup

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In Saint-Denis, the Paris suburb where the French once buried their kings, a new one ascended last week. Zinedine Zidane certainly doesn't look the part. He's quiet, usually gazing down at the ground. He's going prematurely bald. He can appear slow and sometimes clumsy. At one point on his way through the interview room at the Stade de France after the World Cup final on Sunday, he stumbled on the carpet like a young girl wearing her first high heels. Give Zidane a ball and put him on a soccer field, though, and he becomes the Baryshnikov of the midfield, deftly toe-poking a pass in one direction, gamely looping a long-ball in the other, holding his head regally erect all the while. It should be noted that Zizou, as he is known, never trips on grass.

He also scores, but not very often and almost never with his noggin. Which made the two goals he netted with his ever-expanding forehead against Brazil on Sunday nearly as shocking as the game's outcome: a 3-0 victory that gave France its first world championship after 68 years of futility. Not since the 1978 World Cup in Argentina had the host country won the 11-pound gold trophy. Never had mighty Brazil, the defending and four-time champion, suffered a more lopsided defeat in 80 World Cup games dating to 1930.

That Zidane is the son of Algerian immigrants was appropriate. The increasing number of immigrants in France is a hot political topic there, and the team that dethroned Brazil included players who were born or had roots in lands ranging from Armenia to Ghana, Guadeloupe to New Caledonia. Two years ago the leader of France's right-wing National Front party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had complained that it was "artificial to bring players from abroad and call it the French team," even though every member of the World Cup squad had been a French citizen for years. As Les Bleus marched to the final, however, the racial and cultural diversity of the team became a point of Gallic pride. Wrote a columnist for the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, "They can be blacks, whites and all shades of beige, but that doesn't prevent them from singing their national anthem with conviction, even if that irritates Mr. Le Pen."

The 26-year-old Zidane, who grew up in in a rough section of Marseilles called La Castellane, was by Sunday night receiving hugs from French president Jacques Chirac and being toasted in the wildest celebration Paris has seen since the liberation. Zizou was also savoring a measure of redemption. Ever since he had burst onto the French soccer scene with Bordeaux three years ago, he had been compared to Michel Platini, the greatest of French playmakers, who guided Les Bleus to World Cup semifinals in 1982 and '86—but until Sunday those comparisons had been a curse. Although Zidane had come to be recognized as one of the world's best playmakers while with his club in Italy's Serie A, Juventus, he had been dubbed le chat noir (the black cat) by the French media because he seemed jinxed in the big games, performing dismally in the 1996 European Championships and the '97 and the '98 Champions League finals.

Early in this Cup, Zidane created his own bad luck. He was ejected from France's second game for foolishly raking his cleats over the back of a fallen Saudi Arabian player. After serving a two-game suspension, he returned for his team's quarterfinal victory over Italy, and though he flashed moments of passing brilliance (not to mention brilliant passing), he provided nothing memorable until Sunday. "It's true that I wanted to score a goal, but two you can hardly imagine," Zidane said after the win over Brazil.

"He scored with his head," marveled French coach Aimé Jacquet. "Who could have predicted that?"

For that matter, hardly anyone predicted a victory by France, a team that had never before reached the Cup final. Even after Les Bleus advanced with a 2-1 semifinal triumph over Croatia, there was something of a pretender's air about them. Although they had scored more goals than any other country in the first round (nine to Brazil's six), they had then found the back of the net only three times (compared with Brazil's eight) from the second round through the semis. Worse yet, all three of those goals had been scored by defenders. So it wasn't surprising last week that Romano, the injured Brazilian forward, predicted a 4-0 win for his team. Or that Brazil coach Mario Zagallo assured reporters that he had never been more confident of a victory. "France only has Zidane," Zagallo said. "Brazil has several like him." The consensus was that Brazil was an even more skilled and entertaining outfit than it had been in '94. "At this moment," defender Roberto Carlos said two days before the final, "our team has no weaknesses."

That wasn't necessarily true. In fact, Brazil's 21-year-old star striker, Ronaldo, was suffering from a mysterious ailment. The two-time World Player of the Year sat out two practices after supposedly injuring his left ankle in Brazil's semifinal victory over the Netherlands five days before the final. Then, in the hours leading up to Sunday's 9 p.m. game, word spread that Ronaldo would not start. His girlfriend, Susana Werner (a.k.a. Ronaldinha), told SI that the medicine he was taking for his ankle had made him sick. When FIFA, soccer's international governing body, issued the starting lineups at 8:15, Ronaldo's name wasn't on the list. Then, just before kickoff, FIFA announced he would start after all. Ronaldo played all 90 minutes, seemingly at full speed and certainly without a limp. The next day he revealed that he had experienced convulsions for a half-minute hours before the match. The Brazil team doctor said Ronaldo was feeling "emotional stress."

Whatever the reason for Ronaldo's brief withdrawal from the lineup, France held him—and the rest of die Brazilian offense—in check. The only time Ronaldo got free with the ball was early in the second half, when he had 10 feet of open space between him and French keeper Fabien Barthez. Ronaldo wound up and fired; Barthez smothered the shot like a circus performer catching a cannonball. "Ronaldo was not fit to play, and this was a major psychological blow," Zagallo said after the game. "Everyone was very upset, and so the team played to less than its full potential." Considering the vague nature of Ronaldo's injury, Zagallo's plaint sounded a lot like a whine. In the end the makers of the bronzed Ronaldo likenesses being sold for $300 at Brazil's training camp might have had it right: Ronaldo was a bust.

Part of the credit for stopping him should have gone to Laurent Blanc, the veteran French defender who missed the final because of a dubious red card against Croatia. A former teammate of Ronaldo's on the Spanish club Barcelona, Blanc briefed his replacement, Frank Leboeuf, before the final. "He told me that when Ronaldo dribbles, he takes the left side every time," Leboeuf explained later. "So once I was in front of him, it was easy to tackle him."

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