Zinedine Zidane: Face of multi-cultural France and star of Les Bleus’ 1998 World Cup triumph


Back then they called him Yaz, the 10-year-old boy from the concrete high rises of northern Marseille who watched France fizzle and burn at the 1982 World Cup, and whose humble desires were for a leather football and a bicycle rather than Ballons d’Or and immortality.

We know him as Zinedine Zidane, Zizou, the man who finally delivered Les Bleus’ World Cup dream in the summer of 1998 to a euphoric nation unified by their football team’s success.

It was not always like that for Zidane. A second-generation Algerian immigrant, he got his first taste of football on the tough council estate of La Castellane, where unemployment was high and opportunities were low, and only joined his first club in the same year his national team suffered a crushing semi-final penalty shootout defeat by Germany in Seville.

It was not always like that for France, either. A country troubled by racial tension it was divided over the question of immigration, with far-right politicians such as Jean-Marie le Pen stoking the argument by claiming a team made up of players of New Caledonian, Spanish, Caribbean, Senegalese, Ghanian, Armenian, Portuguese and Argentine heritage did not represent the nation.

But as more than a million joyous fans gathered on the Champs-Élysées to celebrate their newly-crowned heroes’ success in 1998, it was the son of a north African warehouseman’s face that was beamed on to the Arc de Triomphe.

“Merci, Zizou,” it read. “Zidane president!”

The kid called Yaz, the one who honed his craft on the dusty streets of a Marseille housing project, had scored twice in a 3-0 victory over Brazil in the final at the Stade de France, casting himself forever as the nation’s darling – their footballing beau idéal.

“Even if you dream about it, think about it, want to do it – you tell yourself it is not possible,” said Zidane. “And that is why I said afterwards that in my life nothing is going to be impossible anymore.”

Having failed to qualify for the previous two World Cups, the pressure on the French squad in the build-up to 1998 was immense. Aime Jacquet took charge of the national side in January 1994, after their failure to reach the USA tournament, and handed Zidane his debut that August.

The prodigious 22-year-old Bordeaux star came off the bench to score twice in a 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic and Jacquet noticed something special – an internal vision and drive.

“Zidane was out of the ordinary, exceptional,” said Jacquet. “But he didn’t have his influence yet, he hadn’t yet got his personal aura.

“He played football to enjoy himself, he had exceptional skills. Though he wasn’t much of a team player, when he came into the French squad he joined other talents who took him on to a national level.”

Zidane was Jacquet’s playmaker by Euro 1996 – taking the mantle from Eric Cantona following the Manchester United player’s nine-month ban for karate kicking a fan – as France reached the semi-finals in England.

But as Les Bleus flailed and floundered between tournaments the press began to turn on the national team boss and, as a World Cup on home soil lurched into the foreground, sports newspaper L’Equipe was leading the calls for him to go.

The media labelled Jacquet “ill-prepared” and “Paleolithic”, and such was the relentless nature of the negative coverage even some players became apprehensive.

But Jacquet was resilient, and training camps in the Alps helped foster ‘le collectif’ philosophy of solidarity, team-work and generosity, with a leading role for one man: Zidane.

“I have known Zidane since we were kids, we played together coming through, and I realised quite quickly when I was part of his team that it is great for him to be the key player, he is going to control the game,” former France defender Lilian Thuram told BBC Sport.

“We realised Zidane was the player who was going to make the difference. We all had roles to play but he was the one that would really take us to another level – if we were going to win this World Cup it was for the rest of us to do our jobs to allow Zidane to shine.”

Zizou was the slightly balding poster boy, a relatively late bloomer – or rather a talent that remained unboxed until he was signed by Cannes as a teenager and given a platform on which to flourish.

By France ’98 he had arrived at Juventus via Bordeaux, established himself as one of Europe’s most electrifying midfielders – technically sublime – and went into the tournament on the back of successive Scudettos and as a Champions League runner-up.

“What he can do with his feet, some people can’t even do with their hands,” said Thierry Henry in the BBC documentary France: Black, White and Blue. “He was just magical. Sometimes when he plays with the ball, it seems like he’s dancing.”

Fittingly, France kicked off their tournament on a Friday night in Marseille at the Stade Velodrome, where Zidane’s childhood idols Jean-Pierre Papin and Enzo Francescoli had strutted their stuff – the latter whom he named his eldest son after – and across the city from his childhood neighbourhood where he daydreamed of playing in World Cups.

Zidane, blue number 10 shirt untucked and hanging loose over his baggy white shorts, curled a corner on to the head of friend and former Bordeaux team-mate Christophe Dugarry to put France 1-0 up against South Africa – the pair having gone separate ways after a dual move to Blackburn Rovers failed to materialise – and the hosts went on to win 3-0.

It settled some nerves, the French team got back in the changing room feeling stronger and were in a buoyant mood, singing and dancing after getting their campaign up and running.

Six days later came Saudi Arabia at the Stade de France in Paris, with Zidane again at his creative best. With the visitors already down to 10 men, he flicked a delightfully deft pass down the line to another former Bordeaux team-mate Bixente Lizarazu, and the left-back teed up Henry for France’s opener before half-time.

Jacquet had pleaded with his side beforehand to “stay serene, don’t get sent off” and they looked to be coasting when David Trezeguet nodded in a second, but with 19 minutes remaining Zidane’s fragile temperament shattered as he stood on Saudi midfielder Fuad Amin during a fairly innocuous challenge.

The nation paused, a collective intake of breath, before Mexican referee Arturo Brizio Carter flashed a red card that was greeted by whistles and jeers from the home crowd.

Following then Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s instruction for officials to “get tough” it was one of five red cards that day, with three players also sent off in Denmark’s draw with South Africa.

But it was also a reminder that if you peeled away the balletic beauty of Zidane with an Adidas Tricolore match ball at his feet, there was the tough kid from a Marseille estate and a raw layer of rage ready to bubble up and sting the opponent who provoked it.

Beneath the cool, composed on-field persona, Zidane was sensitive about his family and heritage. He’d even punched an opposition player for mocking his ghetto roots at Cannes and spent those early days learning to battle his temperament.

The sending off was one of 14 red cards in his career, the last of which remains the most infamous of all – Zidane’s final act as a footballer was a headbutt to Italy defender Marco Materazzi in France’s World Cup final defeat by Italy in 2006.

The image of his humbled figure trudging past world football’s glittering prize at Berlin’s Olympiastadion will be forever etched in his legacy.

In Paris, Zidane stared at the official who waved his arms and encouraged the midfielder to leave. The Frenchman bowed his head and walked towards the touchline, bottom lip pulled tightly over the top one, straight past Jacquet who did not even glance at his star charge.

The 26-year-old took his shirt off, threw it across the changing room floor behind him and stood for a moment, then sat solemnly with his head in one hand, alone and cut off from the noise outside as Henry and Lizarazu completed a 4-0 rout.

“When I got back to the dressing room, I felt terrible because I had let my team-mates down and I was going to miss games,” said Zidane. “I didn’t feel good about it all.”

Thuram did not blame his companion: “There is no need for the player to talk or the other players around him, these are things that happen and everyone turned to how do we overcome it – how do we win without Zidane?”

Outside the camp, it was a carrot for Le Pen and his supporters. Inside, Jacquet was worried. France had lost their star man for two games.

The first of those was the final group fixture which, having already qualified, the hosts won 2-1. But the next pitted France against Paraguay in an edgy last-16 tussle, which an anxious and tetchy Zidane watched from the sidelines. Eventually, his side scraped through thanks to Laurent Blanc’s Golden Goal in extra time.

If Paraguay had posed a problem, how would France fare against an Italy side boasting the likes of Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro in defence, and Christian Vieri and Zidane’s Juventus team-mate Alessandro del Piero up top?

Zizou was back. His stealth-like movement saw him evade the frugal Azzurri backline twice in the opening minutes, pulling a shot wide after a cushioned touch, but a game of few chances finished goalless after extra time.

Head to toe in France’s white second strip – just like that fateful night eight years later against the same opponent – he finally beat Gianluca Pagliuca from the spot as the game went to penalties, sending the Italian stopper the wrong way with a confident strike. He raised his arms to the crowd.

Lizarazu’s poor penalty was saved, but Fabien Barthez immediately denied Demetrio Albertini before Luigi di Biagio rattled the decisive effort against the crossbar.

France had equalled Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and co from 1982 in reaching the semi-finals and there was a carnival atmosphere building in the country. Hundreds of fans were greeting the team bus as it passed through towns and villages, and the players began to notice that the diverse French population was cheering them on in unison.

“Africans, Algerians, Arabs, Moroccans were all at their window with French flags, they were mixing with French people and everyone was singing together and everybody had their faces painted in blue, white and red,” defender Marcel Desailly told the BBC documentary that followed France at the tournament.

The party would continue as right-back Thuram emerged an unlikely hero in a 2-1 semi-final victory over Croatia to take France into their first World Cup final. President Jacques Chirac, dressed in a French football shirt, entered the dressing room after the win, shaking Zidane’s hand and kissing Barthez’s head, as the whole country became immersed in the footballing frenzy.

France versus Brazil was the final everyone wanted, including former Uefa president Platini who years later said “we did a bit of trickery” to avoid the teams being on the same side of the draw, and the players got a taste of the nation’s anticipation as they made their way to the stadium.

“What surprised me was the people in the street,” said Zidane. “Black, white, brown. I was in the bus, right at the back, I turned around and looked behind and there must have been more than 500 motorbikes following us. It was incredible, really incredible.”

While Zidane may have been his nation’s poster boy the Selecao had their own global superstar in Ronaldo, who had already scored four goals during the tournament.

Come matchday, however, rumours reached the French dressing room that the Inter Milan striker was unwell so would not feature.

“We were all convinced it was a ploy by the Brazilians to make us believe that Ronaldo wouldn’t be able to play,” explained Thuram. “We thought ‘no way, Ronaldo is playing the match, they are just making this up to try and fool us’.”

Ronaldo, it later emerged, had suffered from a convulsion earlier in the day. He woke up unaware of what happened, and after several tests and plenty of debate was given the green light to start for Mario Zagallo’s side.

“In games like this, small margins can make a difference – who knows, if Ronaldo had been at 100% of his abilities and feeling well, maybe Brazil would have won?” added Thuram.

The 21-year-old was nowhere near his best that evening in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis – and neither were Brazil. But Zidane was, producing his greatest display of the tournament when it mattered – the man who later that year would be crowned the world’s best player and Ballon d’Or winner.

France’s iconic blue jerseys danced between the resplendent yellow of Brazil. For the neutrals it was footballing nirvana. For the fans whose faces were painted with the Tricolore, it was ecstasy.

The rangy, supple frame of Zidane glided around the Stade de France, Predator Accelerators barely clipping the turf as he almost teed up Stephane Guivarc’h. And then, after 27 minutes, boom! The 6ft 1in playmaker rose above Leonardo to meet Emmanuel Petit’s in-swinging corner from the left and headed beyond goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel to send the stadium delirious.

“This was something we had worked on beforehand,” said Thuram. “Jacquet coached us that Brazil were very weak at defending corners and we will have a really good chance to score if we get the delivery right.”

Zidane jumped on to the advertising hoardings with his arms aloft before anchoring down on the other side and punching the air like he’d just won a gruelling rally across town at Roland Garros.

Nineteen minutes later, in first-half stoppage time, it was Brazil’s combative captain Dunga sent sprawling to the ground by Zizou’s ferocious strength and desire to reach Youri Djorkaeff’s corner whipped in from the right.

Again the Frenchman got his head to the ball, sending a whistling effort through the legs of Roberto Carlos at the front post and into the net to double the hosts’ lead. This time he walked away kissing his France shirt.

“To have Zinedine Zidane in our side performing so well was obviously incredibly important for us,” captain Didier Deschamps told Fifa. “He was a decisive player. Big players always make the difference in big matches.”

Jacquet called for calm in the changing room at the interval and Zidane lay on the floor, shirt off, with his legs hanging over the bench. But two yellow cards after the restart for Desailly threatened to derail France’s bid for glory.

Memories of 1982 loomed until Petit’s 93rd-minute goal popped the cork on the country’s celebrations and the players could embrace, dance, cry and soak up the adulation.

Thuram remembers the party in the dressing room continuing on the bus back to the team hotel, though he had to leave early to give son Marcus his bottle the next morning. Zidane’s face lit up the Arc de Triomphe and more than a million people gathered on the Champs-Élysées, waving flags, sitting on top of moving cars and hanging off lampposts singing I Will Survive in a colossal outpouring of emotion.

Two days later, Zizou and the squad were guests at the French presidential residence for a Bastille Day garden party, receiving Legion of Honor ribbons.

The team were nicknamed ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ (black, white, North African) by some and the ‘Rainbow Team’ by others for their diverse make-up. And, for a moment at least, their success united a country that was conflicted over issues of immigration and discrimination.

“That victory in 1998 helped to give people greater courage and that desire to speak out about equality and injustice, and to demand greater equality,” said Thuram, who has written several books and created his own foundation to educate against racism.

“1998 was also the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, so this was an important, symbolic moment in ways that might not have been perceived at the time.”

President Chirac’s popularity soared and prime minister Lionel Jospin called it “the best image of our unity and diversity”, though some felt it was hypocritical and opportunistic of politicians to exploit the World Cup triumph. It also did not make France’s issues disappear, with Le Pen’s National Front party coming second in the presidential election four years later.

Now, Thuram says the importance of France’s victory was legitimising questions around who could represent the country and highlighting issues around diversity.

“If you look at the composition of the French team and all of the diversity that was there, that all of these players from these different backgrounds could represent France and go on and win, that was a very powerful message to send out to society,” he said.

“It made you look at other areas of society where ethnic minorities were underrepresented and to think about whether they too could benefit from that diversity.

“It really cemented the fact there could be a questioning of dominant models of French identity and thinking about it in different ways, and that has been the most important legacy that you can hark back to 1998 – to think about a more inclusive France and to transfer that to other areas of society.

“This is important because there are always people who are looking to close the door on these debates or to turn back the clock on things that have changed.”

Shy, modest, humble, proud of his family roots in the Kabylie region of Algeria and not one to court controversy away from the field, Zidane has rarely expressed his own political views. As his brother Nordine professed, there are “too many sharks” who “want to use him for political ends”.

Zidane was a social phenomenon, his role in France’s World Cup win and what that meant for the country both in cultural liberation and sporting triumph became known as L’effet Zidane – the Zidane effect.

He transcended sport, race and religion, artists painted the playmaker’s face on huge street murals and he was voted above Michael Jordan as the world’s greatest athlete at the time.

“What you notice about Zidane is a greater confidence and assurance on the pitch, a confidence in his ability to play a key role within the team. That was something that got stronger and stronger as his career developed,” said Thuram.

“He has this strong personality, leadership qualities, self confidence in his choices and his intelligence in the game – he wouldn’t have been able to be a top player if he didn’t have those.”

Zidane may have helped change France, but at heart he remained the boy from the Marseille projects who kept old friends and family close and admired his father Smail, who missed the World Cup final to look after his grandson Luca.

”My papa always taught me one special thing: be respectful, give respect in life,” Zidane told the New York Times following France’s victory.

“That was the biggest word in his vocabulary. He said, ‘You’ll see, if you’re respectful and if you’re good and if you work, you’ll get there’. In fact, he wasn’t wrong.

“I think when you’re young, at a certain point you’ve just got to shut up. Be straight, you’re there to learn – you don’t let anybody walk all over you, but you take it easy and wait.

“I didn’t want to open my mouth as a kid. What I wanted was to succeed.”

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