11 February, 2009
ZINEDINE ZIDANE AND FRANCE (AND ME)
Zidane’s dead, he retired the second he planted that headbutt into Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final. He was France’s excuse as a nation: they were always able to point to him and pretend that their country wasn’t falling apart on racial faultlines; to the way he had won France its World Cup in 1998 and were able to blindly say, “But look, even Algerians can make it to the top in France if they apply themselves.” Meanwhile the real Algerians remained marginalised and unemployed in shithole suburbs at the end of the Parisian and Marseille trainlines while CVs with Algerian (or Senegalese or any sort of Arab or African) names were proven in a French study to be immediately thrown into the bin by French employers.
I was fascinated by the French soccer team. Even though each game was a struggle, somehow they were winners. They were a motley collection of Algerians, Caribbeans, Africans, Frenchmen all who were mostly first or second generation. There was Patrick Vieira, the man who as an ex-Senegalese lined up for France in World Cup 2002 against, yes, Senegal, who themselves were a team full of first-generation Frenchmen. That’s postcolonialism for you. And Senegal won!
I couldn’t really get a read on Zidane as a soccer player. He thought better than other players, faster: he played soccer with a one-touch style (that is, thinking ahead so that he already knew where he would pass the ball even before he received it, thus moving the ball on with a single touch without maintaining possession). It’s a trait I admire and a way I always felt was the best way to play in my own shitty little soccer games. Zidane had an innate sense of the field, but he would sometimes fade in and out of games. My hero on the French team was not in fact Zidane but his ‘rival’ for the French team’s number one, Thierry Henry. Henry had an all-action style, always involved with the play, whereas Zidane didn’t know how to get his own ball, so that if he wasn’t supplied by other teammates he got lost.
People are seldom able to think as fast as Zidane, on field (and nor are there many who can think fast off it). Most players are ball-hogs, both at local level and internationally. Zidane and Henry did not gel that well, and in fact until Henry’s famous goal that killed Brazil at World Cup 2006 (see below) they had never combined for a French goal. They both existed as the French focus, separate but equal, tying France over for four tournaments without having much to do with each other.
I loved the French team back in the day. They were almost Latin in their elegance, almost Germanic in their pragmatic efficiency to win all of the close matches, almost African in their physical strength and, well, blackness, almost Italian in their defensive strength. I was not a Zidane fan as such but he was indisputably the man. Now that he’s gone I just can’t bring myself to care about France’s results anymore, their terrible Euro 2008.
When they won Euro 2000 against the hated Italian team (although I now admire Italy since they won WC 2006) after Italy were seconds away from winning I was utterly overjoyed by the way it had happened; the good guys had won. And then in 2006 after I was sure that France were now irrelevant and finished as a force they, and Zidane, turned the clock back out of nowhere and beat all the same teams that they had in 2000. It was as if someone made deal just with me: you liked France’s 2000 so much, here it is all over again. They beat Spain again by scoring goals, by having it, a force which Spain, for all their pretty ball possession, did not have. They beat Portugal again with a Zidane penalty. They beat Brazil again (those arrogant pricks totally needed to be put in their place; France is their daddy). All that was left was to beat Italy in the Final again.
Zidane chipped a beautiful penalty in at the start of the 2006 World Cup Final. But after that Henry’s buzzing was the only x-factor of the standoffish match. Ten minutes from the end Zidane’s header was saved by the Italian goalkeeper. If it had gone in Zidane would have been the two-goal hero just like 1998, France would be World Champions again completely against the formguide and my life would have been just wonderful. But it got saved and three minutes later he headbutted Materazzi and was sent off. In spirit that moment was the end of the 2006 World Cup; the penalty shootout afterwards felt oddly empty even as it was happening. There wasn’t a chance in hell that France would win the penalty shootout after all that.
He was the French team. When he trudged past the World Cup trophy on display as he was sent off, there trudged off the French team with him, leaving a bunch of ghosts to take the penalties. And then Italy won – think about how many trillions of times anyone has ever kicked a ball anywhere; Fabio Grosso’s winning penalty was the single most important kick of all of them, ever – and I quietly turned off the TV. I couldn’t bear to see the rest, the Italian happiness.
Zidane was from Marseille. Did he come from a place where you just don’t let insults against one’s sister slide, damn the consequences (even when the World Cup is on the line in the next ten minutes)? He must have had some sort of anger within him, a need to achieve, driving his career. I think most top athletes – apart from the insanely gifted ones like Roger Federer – have something fierce inside them, something that needs to set them apart from others, at the expense of others particularly. It actually wasn’t the first time that Zidane headbutted someone in his career.
Oh well. At least they all have 1998 and 2000. It’s funny talking about Zidane and Henry both underachieving in their insanely successful careers but those twin French victories came so early in their careers that I have to wonder if there will still be regrets for each of them.
Thierry Henry finally won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2009, the last influential year of his career.
7 July 2016
THE THORNY FRENCH PATH TO EURO 2016 GLORY
Iconic it may be, but I haven’t worked out if France the country is relevant anymore.
Furthermore, is French football relevant post Zidane-Henry era? I tend to think the answer is a slight no in both cases.
They’ll probably never get over the six-week surrender. Football-wise, things were of course more successful at the turn of the century. However as detailed in French commentator Philippe Auclair’s biography Thierry Henry, they will spend a long time getting over their football Maginot Line, the bus strike in South Africa in 2010.
These wilfully forgotten second-generation ‘Beurs’ (Algerian-descent) and ‘Blacks’ (mostly children of parents from Africa, Martinique and Guadeloupe) from the Parisian outer-suburban housing estates have been the foundation of the French national team from 1998 onwards. The extent of the alienation is covered by the film La Haine, the starting point of a then-young actor Vincent Cassel.
Still, these quasi-outsiders are lining up and representing the nation match by match. The blackness of the French team is striking. There is commentary about how close the ‘banlieusard’ generation are to French nationalism, often choosing not to sing the anthem stemming from the people who went to war with their forefathers. But much of the sneering can be seen as simply racist jealousy.
America, for example, would be a shadow of themselves in track and field and basketball without descendants of West Africans.
The disconnection between the old-school beret French like ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy and football players can be summed up in the phrase ‘la racaille’, the scum, which gained traction when the housing estates rioted last decade.
The nation was disgusted, and Anelka was never seen in a French shirt again. But there were other members of that team who were ashamed of what they’d done. Captain Patrice Evra, still part of the 2016 team, and Florent Malouda looked to make amends. Others like Franck Ribery didn’t.
France won the European Championship at home in 1984, the Platini-Tigana Golden Generation 1. Using the same shirt design, they won the 1998 World Cup also at home with the Zidane-Henry Golden Generation 2.
France have struggled to get it together since, arguably, 2000. The 2006 World Cup, featuring Zidane’s World Cup-losing headbutt, was a freak. France have been forgotten in the Spain-Germany era and better known for spats from the likes of Samir Nasri, William Gallas and Karim Benzema, left out of Euro 2016 for a bizarre blackmail attempt against a teammate.
Back in France again for Euro 2016, it will be hard for the current team to live up to the examples of 1984 and 1998, but they’re in the semi-final nonetheless. It all seems to ride on two forwards Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet. It’s also anyone’s guess if Paul Pogba, prodigy midfielder who has all the gifts, can play with some consistency.
Still, they only need to string two quality games together and they’ll have matched previous French teams. To beat invincible, iconic Germany would actually be an improvement on French teams of the past, who lost agonisingly to the Germans in multiple World Cup semi-finals.
Perhaps it’s time. Platini has been disgraced. Zidane was overrated.
Do national teams actually owe their countries passion? That is always debatable in a nation like France, who have a dozen other things to pay attention to – rugby, high cuisine and fashion, back-breaking taxes.
Wins against Germany and a possibly ‘easy’ final would not compare them to Platini’s nine goals in five games in 1984. But it would help France put some love back into their national team.
In the end, France did not produce a ‘quality game’ in either of their two business-end Euro 2016 fixtures. They defeated Germany 2-0 in Marseille, mostly achieved because Bastian Schweinsteiger gave France a needless handball penalty just on halftime after complete German domination, a lead France were able to defend thereafter. But with the stage set once again for home glory in the final, they threw it away against a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal for a shocking loss.