LETTER FROM EUROPE
Everything Real Madrid means was on display in Marseille last Wednesday. Here came the cashbox boys, wielding a budget ($350 million) that dwarfs any other team's and rolling out its roster of megastars with studied casualness: All was as it should be. Of course David Beckham bent in his free kick, as the movie says; of course Ronaldo popped home the game-winner. You don't come to see Real Madrid play as much as you come to see them pay off.
After beating Olympic Marseille 2-1 they strolled to their bus like rock stars—Beckham, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Ra�l, Zinedine Zidane—and when you saw the highlights later, you could almost be fooled by the predictableness of it all and say, as Beckham did, "It was obviously just another game."
You had to be there in the damp cold at Stade Velodrome with eight minutes left to know differently. You had to hear the whistles that had rained down on Zidane, the sublime midfielder, fall silent, had to see him wave twice, apologetically, as he walked off the field, had to feel the crowd rise around you clapping and chanting, "Zi-zou!" You had to sense that the cheering for Zidane carried not just pride for Marseille's prodigal son but also frustration and the residue of an old shame. In this sense, Real Madrid didn't matter at all.
What mattered was that Zidane, now 31, had grown up worshipping OM and has a family that cheered for that team even last Wednesday, Zidane's first time returning home to play since establishing himself in the late '90s as the great player of his time. "I'll probably never be an OM player, even though it was my childhood dream," he said the day before the game. "My contract is too long, and my career too short and nearing the end. Too bad they didn't want me when it was possible."
The man who passed on him was OM owner Bernard Tapie, who between '86 and '93 drove Marseille to four French tides, a Champions League trophy and eternal ignominy after a '93 match-fixing scandal. Marseille hasn't won a title since. Recovering relevance, for city and team, hasn't been easy. Last week Marseille lost out to Valencia for the rights to host the 2007 America's Cup, and then their Zizou—after being named a player of the year finalist—helped set up Ronaldo for the goal that knocked OM out of the Champions League.
He smiled then and hugged Ronaldo because, well, that's what you do. But when the game ended, Zidane trudged away, his head bowed. Light glinted off his pate, and 58,600 sets of eyes watched him go. He didn't look like a winner but something conflicted and sad. He looked, in fact, like a man from Marseille.