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Coup De Grace

July 20, 1998
July 20, 1998

Table of Contents
July 20, 1998

World Cup
Photo Credits: Patrick Hertzog/Getty Images

Coup De Grace

Zinedine Zidane scored twice with his head to seize the hearts of a nation—and France's first World Cup

In Saint-Denis, the Paris suburb where the French once buried
their kings, a new one ascended last week. Zinedine Zidane
certainly doesn't look the part. He's quiet, usually gazing down
at the ground. He's going prematurely bald. He can appear slow
and sometimes clumsy. At one point on his way through the
interview room at the Stade de France after the World Cup final
on Sunday, he stumbled on the carpet like a young girl wearing
her first high heels. Give Zidane a ball and put him on a soccer
field, though, and he becomes the Baryshnikov of the midfield,
deftly toe-poking a pass in one direction, gamely looping a
longball in the other, holding his head regally erect all the
while. It should be noted that Zizou, as he is known, never
trips on grass.

This is an article from the July 20, 1998 issue

He also scores, but not very often and almost never with his
noggin. Which made the two goals he netted with his
ever-expanding forehead against Brazil on Sunday nearly as
shocking as the game's outcome: a 3-0 victory that gave France
its first world championship after 68 years of futility. Not
since the 1978 World Cup in Argentina had the host country won
the 11-pound gold trophy. Never had mighty Brazil, the defending
and four-time champion, suffered a more lopsided defeat in 80
World Cup games dating to 1930.

That Zidane is the son of Algerian immigrants was appropriate.
The increasing number of immigrants in France is a hot political
topic there, and the team that dethroned Brazil included players
who were born or had roots in lands ranging from Armenia to
Ghana, Guadeloupe to New Caledonia. Two years ago the leader of
France's right-wing National Front party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had
complained that it was "artificial to bring players from abroad
and call it the French team," even though every member of the
World Cup squad had been a French citizen for years. As Les
Bleus marched to the final, however, the racial and cultural
diversity of the team became a point of Gallic pride. Wrote a
columnist for the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, "They can
be blacks, whites and all shades of beige, but that doesn't
prevent them from singing their national anthem with conviction,
even if that irritates Mr. Le Pen."

x

Hardly anyone predicted a victory by France, a team that had never before reached the Cup final.

x

The 26-year-old Zidane, who grew up in in a rough section of
Marseilles called La Castellane, was by Sunday night receiving
hugs from French president Jacques Chirac and being toasted in
the wildest celebration Paris has seen since the liberation.
Zizou was also savoring a measure of redemption. Ever since he
had burst onto the French soccer scene with Bordeaux three years
ago, he had been compared to Michel Platini, the greatest of
French playmakers, who guided Les Bleus to World Cup semifinals
in 1982 and '86—but until Sunday those comparisons had been a
curse. Although Zidane had come to be recognized as one of the
world's best playmakers while with his club in Italy's Serie A,
Juventus, he had been dubbed le chat noir (the black cat) by the
French media because he seemed jinxed in the big games,
performing dismally in the 1996 European Championships and the
'97 and the '98 Champions League finals.

Early in this Cup, Zidane created his own bad luck. He was
ejected from France's second game for foolishly raking his
cleats over the back of a fallen Saudi Arabian player. After
serving a two-game suspension, he returned for his team's
quarterfinal victory over Italy, and though he flashed moments
of passing brilliance (not to mention brilliant passing), he
provided nothing memorable until Sunday. "It's true that I
wanted to score a goal, but two you can hardly imagine," Zidane
said after the win over Brazil.

"He scored with his head," marveled French coach Aime Jacquet.
"Who could have predicted that?"

For that matter, hardly anyone predicted a victory by France, a
team that had never before reached the Cup final. Even after Les
Bleus advanced with a 2-1 semifinal triumph over Croatia, there
was something of a pretender's air about them. Although they had
scored more goals than any other country in the first round
(nine to Brazil's six), they had then found the back of the net
only three times (compared with Brazil's eight) from the second
round through the semis. Worse yet, all three of those goals had
been scored by defenders. So it wasn't surprising last week that
Romario, the injured Brazilian forward, predicted a 4-0 win for
his team. Or that Brazil coach Mario Zagallo assured reporters
that he had never been more confident of a victory. "France only
has Zidane," Zagallo said. "Brazil has several like him." The
consensus was that Brazil was an even more skilled and
entertaining outfit than it had been in '94. "At this moment,"
defender Roberto Carlos said two days before the final, "our
team has no weaknesses."

That wasn't necessarily true. In fact, Brazil's 21-year-old star
striker, Ronaldo, was suffering from a mysterious ailment. The
two-time World Player of the Year sat out two practices after
supposedly injuring his left ankle in Brazil's semifinal victory
over the Netherlands five days before the final. Then, in the
hours leading up to Sunday's 9 p.m. game, word spread that
Ronaldo would not start. His girlfriend, Susana Werner (a.k.a.
Ronaldinha), told SI that the medicine he was taking for his
ankle had made him sick. When FIFA, soccer's international
governing body, issued the starting lineups at 8:15, Ronaldo's
name wasn't on the list. Then, just before kickoff, FIFA
announced he would start after all. Ronaldo played all 90
minutes, seemingly at full speed and certainly without a limp.
The next day he revealed that he had experienced convulsions for
a half-minute hours before the match. The Brazil team doctor
said Ronaldo was feeling "emotional stress."

Whatever the reason for Ronaldo's brief withdrawal from the
lineup, France held him—and the rest of the Brazilian
offense—in check. The only time Ronaldo got free with the ball
was early in the second half, when he had 10 feet of open space
between him and French keeper Fabien Barthez. Ronaldo wound up
and fired; Barthez smothered the shot like a circus performer
catching a cannonball. "Ronaldo was not fit to play, and this
was a major psychological blow," Zagallo said after the game.
"Everyone was very upset, and so the team played to less than
its full potential." Considering the vague nature of Ronaldo's
injury, Zagallo's plaint sounded a lot like a whine. In the end
the makers of the bronzed Ronaldo likenesses being sold for $300
at Brazil's training camp might have had it right: Ronaldo was a
bust.

Part of the credit for stopping him should have gone to Laurent
Blanc, the veteran French defender who missed the final because
of a dubious red card against Croatia. A former teammate of
Ronaldo's on the Spanish club Barcelona, Blanc briefed his
replacement, Frank Leboeuf, before the final. "He told me that
when Ronaldo dribbles, he takes the left side every time,"
Leboeuf explained later. "So once I was in front of him, it was
easy to tackle him."

x

It's true that I wanted to score a goal, but two you can hardly imagine.

Zinedine Zidane
x

No World Cup champion has owed more to its back line than
France. These four Musketeers—Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Bixente
Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram—allowed only one goal (by Croatia)
in the run of play for the tournament, even though two of the
defenders were playing out of position. The graceful central
defender Desailly, a native of Ghana, usually plays defensive
midfield for his club, AC Milan. Thuram, a native of Guadeloupe
and Les Bleus' unparalleled right back, normally roams the
middle of the defense for his Italian club, Parma. "If you
approach the game with the right attitude," said Thuram, "you
can play any position."

Or, like Thuram, seemingly every position. In the win over
Croatia, Thuram became a national hero by scoring both of his
team's goals. His skill as a defender had never been
questioned—Thuram was named foreign player of the year in Serie
A last season—but he had not scored in 36 previous games for
the national team. After his second goal Thuram fell to the
Stade de France turf and struck the pose of Rodin's The Thinker,
which made sense, for he is an avid reader of philosophy whose
favorite book is Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince.
Thuram's two-way play was so breathtaking that it made one
wonder: Could the best player in the world be a defender? "You
write and write about me and Ronaldo," Zidane said last week,
"but you don't even see that the greatest footballer of all is
right in front of you: Lilian Thuram."

One sequence that involved Thuram midway through the first half
on Sunday neatly summed up the contrasts of the game. With the
final scoreless, Thuram lunged to steal a pass on the right
sideline, then kept the ball alive by lifting it over two
onrushing Brazilian defenders as though he were flipping a
pancake. The ball traced the sideline chalk until it came to
French midfielder Christian Karembeu, a New Caledonian, who
hustled down the right side into Brazil's defensive third. Just
when it appeared Karembeu had lost the ball, Roberto Carlos
muffed the easy clearance, and suddenly France had a corner kick.

Zidane outleaped Brazilian midfielder Leonardo to the ball and
drilled in his first goal. Just before intermission, Zizou
worked the same magic on another corner, this one from the left
side. Then midway through the second half, after Desailly was
ejected for his second yellow card, France braced for Brazil's
final assault. None came. Midfielder Emmanuel Petit insulted
Brazil with a shorthanded goal in injury time. Had its bumbling
forwards, Stephane Guivarc'h and Christophe Dugarry, not botched
wide-open shots, France might have won 6-0.

Afterward, Chirac and other pols scurried to attach themselves
to the new champions of le foot, a sport that had been viewed
with typical French disdain before the tournament. It was as if
Thuram had opened The Little Prince and read a passage to the
nation: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
What is essential is invisible to the eye." How else could one
explain the public outpouring that took place on the day of the
final, when thousands of French citizens lined the streets of
Paris to cheer the team bus? "It was like after the war in
1945," said Leboeuf.

After the game on Sunday, a million revelers flocked to the Arc
de Triomphe, waving what seemed to be a million tricolors.
Elderly women with wide smiles chanted, "On est le champion!"
(We are the champion!) Teenagers with ZIZOU painted on their
chests kicked crushed Coke cans and screamed as if they had just
scored in the Cup final. Firecrackers popped. Whistles blew.
Klaxons blared. It was 3 a.m. on the Champs-Elysees, and the
celebration had only just begun.