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France's master magician sets up a date with destiny
« on: July 06, 2006, 04:33:46 PM »

France's master magician sets up a date with destiny

Some things, you suspect, are just meant to be. Like, for instance, when Zinedine Zidane announced he would be coming out of his self-enforced international retirement, claiming he had heard angels' voices in the night telling him, in true Lord Kitchener style, that his country needed him; like when he said this World Cup would be the last we saw of him kicking a ball, be it for France or Real Madrid.

The whole of France wanted to believe that their hero would make a difference. Now he has, initially with his unique mastery of the ball and last night with a penalty that takes Les Bleus to Berlin on Sunday for a date with destiny.

When Henry theatrically crashed to the floor shortly before half-time having felt Ricardo Carvalho's boot touch his shin pad, there was only going to be one man taking the spot kick. With sweat dripping from his face, Zidane steadied himself, looking first at Ricardo, that master penalty saver and then down at the ball. Taking a very short run-up, he needed only two steps to generate enough power and accuracy to beat the goalkeeper's grasp and find the left-hand corner.

After last night's tense semi-final win over Portugal, there can be no doubt now that the final scene has been set. All it needs is for the leading man to step from the wings and deliver a virtuoso performance before the curtain falls. The initial signs, it must be said, had not been great in this World Cup as Zidane's displays against Switzerland and South Korea in the opening two games looked like those of a footballer well over the hill.

Then came the magic after a break through suspension: two dazzling displays - the first against Spain, the second even more memorable against a submissive Brazil when he twisted and tormented the world champions.

Thirty-four years of age? This three-times World Player of the Year was playing with all the zest of the hungry kid plucked from the mean streets of Marseille by French club Cannes at the age of 14.

So after all the posturing and jousting from Germany and Argentina, was this actually going to turn into 'Zizou's' World Cup to cap off the spectacular career of one of the most exquisite talents to ever grace a football field? Quite possibly, if you believe all the signs.

This battle in Munich went along with the script: a tense, slow opening from France as Phil Scolari's side made all the running. Up the other end, playing behind Thierry Henry, the shaven-headed leader of Les Bleus was gently feeling his way into the game with one or two typically imaginative flicks to move the play on. For Zidane, there was only one target this year. Far from happy with the way things were going at Real Madrid, totally disenchanted with the way his club was being run, France's highly decorated captain decided to concentrate all his efforts on making sure he was in the right shape for these World Cup Finals.

Nothing else mattered. People who know him well say that everything Zidane did, whether it looked good or not, was geared towards reaching peak form and fitness in Germany.

Maybe that would explain his lumbering performance at Highbury in March when the ageing midfielder struggled to keep pace with Arsene Wenger's young guns in a Champions League semi-final Arsenal comfortably won. Walking away from the ground that night, I was firmly convinced that the great man had 'gone', with little juice left in that famous tank.

Appearances, it seems, can be highly deceptive. Zidane went on to show the familiar touches - the drag-backs and flicks, the cheeky little passes - as Raymond Domenech's side hung onto the narrowest of leads. In the end, it was just about enough.

The legs have nearly deserted him now. That much is sure. They don't have much left to give before the game is up. Yet that game only entails another 90 minutes or 120 if extra time on Sunday tests the stamina. Zidane should be capable of that. He has been planning it all year.


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