Listen to this article
Eight years ago, his image was beamed on to the Arc de Triomphe, writes David Owen. What odds now that there won’t be a repeat performance on July 9?
Zinedine Zidane on Saturday produced a performance of such sustained virtuosity for France against Brazil that he reduced some of the finest midfield artisans of our times to huffing, puffing spectators. Kaká, Juninho Pernambucano and Ronaldinho might have been flown in from Hackney Marshes, London’s spiritual home for the lowliest of amateur football, for all the impression they made on the game in the shadow of the revitalised French master.
Ronaldinho had only one chance to leave his mark on the match: an 87th-minute free-kick that he screwed just over. That free-kick was won by a despairing Ronaldo. As the World Cup’s record goal-scorer, the Real Madrid striker’s name will be remembered wherever football is played. Yet almost his last act on a World Cup football field was a rather undignified dive. Such was the disarray the tournament favourites had been reduced to.
Ronaldo was not alone in having his dignity shredded. Cafú, the 36-year-old Brazilian captain, quickly started to look his age. When he was booked as early as the 24th minute for holding back the impressive Eric Abidal, the writing already looked to be on the wall. Fifteen minutes from the end, he was substituted. Afterwards, he seemed close to tears.
But this was Zidane’s match. I doubt he can have played this well since the European Cup final in 2002 when he scored with perhaps the sweetest volley ever struck. In a crowded midfield, I cannot recall him once losing possession. For most players, this controversial World Cup ball takes an age to stop bobbling around. Yet Zidane on Saturday was a kitten contentedly juggling a ball of string.
Two sequences of play stand out, though there were at least half a dozen times when the crowd was moved to spontaneous applause. A minute before half-time, he feinted past two Brazilian midfielders in the centre circle and fed the on-rushing Patrick Vieira with an exquisitely timed short pass. The Juventus man’s burst was ended only by a foul by Juan. This earned the Brazilian centre-back a yellow card that might have been red.
Then, just before the hour mark, hemmed in as usual, he suddenly flicked the ball up into the air and headed a pass out to the sparsely populated left flank. This initiated the game’s decisive movement. From the free-kick that soon resulted, Zidane (yes, him again) swung over a deep ball that Thierry Henry volleyed into the roof of the net at the far post.
As the Arsenal striker later acknowledged, it was the sort of chance it would have been easy to plant high into the stands. His task was made easier, though, by the fact that there was not a Brazilian defender within yards of him.
It may not happen again in this tournament, but France had finally come up against a team they could outrun. As a result, with Zidane, Vieira and Claude Makelele snapping into their tackles, they achieved near complete control – much moreso than in France’s 3-0 victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final.
For the best part of an hour nonetheless – until the Brazilians realised they risked flying home to a glum reception and a searching inquest – this was buddy football, albeit of the highest calibre.
These players, drawn in near equal measure from the top clubs in the big European markets – Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France – know and respect each other like no others in the world game. Roberto Carlos, after all, laid on Zidane’s goal in that 2002 European Cup final. The end of match embraces were as warm as family.
From looking like tourists in a war zone at the start of the tournament, this French outfit has mysteriously coalesced into the class team of the four that remain.
The distance they have come was illustrated when coach Raymond Domenech’s mobile phone rang in the minutes after the match. “Le Président?” suggested one French wag. Two weeks ago, it might have been le sack.