I love Zidane
12, Jul 2006 15:30
A heavy burden for the hero of the banlieues
By Simon Kuper
Published: July 10 2006 19:42 | Last updated: July 10 2006 19:42
When Zinedine Zidane walked off a football pitch for the last time on Sunday, it was not simply as an acknowledged footballing genius. Despite his sending-off for headbutting an opponent in the closing minutes of the World Cup final, he had become a national emblem as perhaps no footballer of any nationality had before him. Yet the 34-year-old's career is a study in football's limited power to change the world.
Everyone who has ever played the game has struggled for absolute mastery of the ball. Zidane came closest to achieving it. His former teammate Didier Deschamps, longtime captain of France, said: "Zidane achieves on the field what everyone dreams of doing just once. If I had trained day and night I would never have got there."
France for many years stood out among western European nations in seeming immune to the intensities football generates. Until their country reached the World Cup final in Paris in 1998, many Frenchmen had never even watched a match. When Zidane defeated Brazil with two headed goals that allowed his side to lift the trophy, one writer declared the litany of French heroes now read Voltaire, Danton, De Gaulle and Zidane.
The son of an Algerian warehouseman became the model immigrant. Zidane worked hard, loved France and his Algerian grandparents, and although proud of his origins rarely mentioned Islam.
Many French politicians had concluded that he and the multiracial team would help poor migrants "integrate" into France. Patrick Mignon, sociologist at France's national sports institute Insep, says they "seized on football as a 'miracle solution'."
It was always a questionable one. France had had ethnic football heroes before, notes the political scientist Patrick Weil. Indeed, a survey in the mid-1980s showed that of the 600-odd men who had by then played for France, at least a third had immigrant origins or came from outside metropolitan France. France's two great footballing heroes before Zidane were Raymond Kopa (originally Kopaszewski), son of a Polish miner, and Michel Platini, whose father was Italian. But with football starting to become a mass spectator sport in France, it seemed possible that Zidane could mean more.
He indisputably touched the country's poor immigrants. Ethnic youths celebrating French victories sometimes wave Algerian flags for Zidane. At the height of anti-Muslim feeling after September 11, a bearded Muslim standing outside a mosque declared on television: "I am a Frenchman and I belong to the community of Islam, just like Zinedine Zidane: he is a Muslim and he belongs to the community of football."
Yet Zidane could not change such people's lives. Many white Frenchmen revered him while voting for the far-right Front National party.
Long before last November's riots in the ethnic suburbs, Zidane's limited power was apparent. When France played Algeria in Paris in October 2001 – the first encounter in decades – French youths of North African origin drowned out the Marseillaise before the match and later invaded the field, forcing the game's abandonment. Despite Zidane, they did not consider themselves full Frenchmen.
The next spring Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National finished second in the French presidential elections. Most observers had thought him gone, destroyed in part by the team that he had disparaged before their World Cup win as foreign mercenaries who "don't sing the Marseillaise, or ignore it". Before the second round of voting, Zidane called on voters to disavow a party "that does not correspond to the values of France". Le Pen lost the second round, but he had already shown that the team's propaganda had failed.
Many of the rioters last autumn had cheered when Zidane scored for France. But the country they so vocally supported had still stuck them in the banlieues. Similarly, in the US, black sporting heroes have not eradicated the ghettoes.
Amid France's disappointments, one man remains unquestioned. Since 2000 "Zizou" has regularly been voted most popular Frenchman in Journal du Dimanche's poll. The Muslim saint is displacing the topless revolutionary Marianne as the national symbol. That status seemed undiminished on Sunday. Sympathy rather than anger was the predominant reaction – in apparent recognition of what his country owed him.
Zidane retired from the national team in 2004, but without him it floundered. Zidane returned to save the nation. He and his fellow genius, Thierry Henry, led a mediocre team with a strong defence to the final. If Zidane's header five minutes before his dismissal on Sunday had gone in, the World Cup would have been largely his. To the crowds serenading him on French streets – future Rues Zizous – he had transcended his team. Even some players seemed to think so. William Gallas, France's centre-back, said afterwards: "It was his last World Cup and everybody wanted to win for him." Not for France but for Zidane – but then they had become almost the same thing.
Zidane gave France its greatest communal moments since the Liberation of 1944. Sunday's final will probably score France's highest-ever viewing figures for a television programme. But as the final ticked on, Zidane's physique – limited even in his prime – began to let him down. His bent back succumbed beneath the weight of a nation. Whatever the Italian defender Marco Materazzi said to him, it was probably frustration that prompted his retaliation.
Because football unleashes such emotions, we tend to exaggerate its power. In truth, even had the team won, Zidane would not have redeemed the lives of the unemployed in France's banlieues. Equally, his red card will not worsen their plight. At least it was an epic end that befitted an epic figure.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006