Listen to this article
The French team are training on a late summer’s morning at their camp in the forest of Rambouillet. Up close, you glimpse their humanity. The courteous Thierry Henry jogs over to shake hands with journalists. Willy Sagnol teases Jean-Alain Boumsong (“Eh, Boum!”) about his blunders for Newcastle against Manchester United last Sunday. And seeing Zinedine Zidane jogging amidst his team-mates, you realise that with his stiff, upright gait he is an old man by comparison.
“Les Bleus” then warm up with a sort of musical chairs without music or chairs: on a signal, everyone has to hug in groups. The last one to find buddies is a loser. First it’s Vikash Dhorasoo, always an outsider in this team, who has to do press-ups while the other players laugh like infants. After a couple of rounds Zidane doesn’t even bother seeking buddies, instead just standing around before dutifully doing press-ups.
The best footballer of his time didn’t come back to the French team to obey orders. When the 33-year-old last month announced his return to guide the hapless Bleus to next year’s World Cup, he let France’s notional coach, Raymond Domenech, know who was le patron. As so often, the French team’s group dynamics are more fun than their football. Their qualifying matches against the tiny Faroe Islands on Saturday and against Republic of Ireland in Dublin on Wednesday will delight students of hierarchies. But Zidane may not save France.
More has emerged this week about why “Zizou” and his pals Claude Makelele and Lilian “Tutu” Thuram re-turned. France – world and European champions with Zidane and Thuram – had floundered without them. Now fourth in their qualifying group for the World Cup, the French haven’t played a decent match since Zidane quit last year.
He quit because he wanted to devote his final years to his club, Real Madrid. To an overworked footballer, a World Cup can seem an imposition: weeks stuck in a hotel room watching Korean children’s television while your team-mates slander each other in the corridors, before getting knocked out and starting the new season exhausted.
This summer something changed: Zidane, it is whispered, decided to retire next year. This helped him realise that a World Cup is the deepest experience of a footballer’s professional life. And so he persuaded Makelele, his on-pitch valet, to make “le comeback” with him.
Thuram, 33, had met Zidane for summit talks at the Parisian hotel George V, but decided against returning. He was therefore surprised when Domenech picked him for last month’s friendly against Ivory Coast. Still, he felt obliged to go. France excelled, winning 3-0.
The return of “les anciens” changes everything. Zidane will be adored in France until global warming diverts the Gulf Stream and turns the country into tundra. He is replacing Marianne as the national symbol. You see his face on school noticeboards promoting some worthy goal, on television criticising the far right, and as an ape-like puppet on France’s version of Spitting Image. The French have voted him their favourite compatriot so often he might eventually retire the title.
The other Bleus revere him. Football is about the ball. Everyone who has ever touched the thing has struggled to master it. Zidane got closer than anyone else.
He had never previously sought power. But this time he informed Domenech that he would be returning as playmaker in central midfield. Domenech obeyed. He must suspect that Zidane merely tolerates him: in interviews the player never refers to him by name, only as “le sélectionneur”.
Letting Zidane build attacks from central midfield sounds wonderful, except that it didn’t work at Euro 2004. The image of that tournament was Zidane shuffling upfield practically on top of the ball, while opponents stood waiting for him to arrive. Better perhaps to let France’s other genius, Henry, drop into midfield and race at defences. However, Zidane is older than Henry, won the World Cup, and thus outranks him in France’s Confucian hierarchy. The two aren’t blood brothers anyway. In 39 international matches together, Henry has never scored from a pass from Zidane.
It may never happen, because the world’s best passer is fading. An ageing athlete doesn’t merely slow down: his co-ordination declines too. You always felt there was a limit to Zidane’s physique, that one day that bent back would cave in. He has almost 700 official matches in his legs, double the total of many veterans.
But if he doesn’t take France to this World Cup, the French could drift away from football. They only discovered the game en masse at the 1998 World Cup, and had begun deserting the national team before Zidane returned. Now he dwarfs les Bleus. In a century, when every town in the Republic has its Rue Zizou, he may have outlived them.