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Zidane to Try to Stay on Top of Game

Soccer: French star is considered best player in the world, but humble midfielder sets sights on winning another World Cup title.

April 14, 2002|Associated Press

PARIS — Rising from the tough streets of Marseille to the summit of world soccer, Zinedine Zidane is the most accomplished active player in the world. And he's aiming for the game's biggest prize--another World Cup title.

Along with Brazil's Ronaldo, the French midfielder is the only two-time FIFA player of the year. Unlike Ronaldo, he also owns world and European titles.

And while the Brazilian barely has played in recent years because of injury, Zidane's form is as good as ever.

Still, this son of Algerian immigrants who became the idol of a nation by leading France to the World Cup four years ago remains modest--even if he is soccer's most expensive player.

"I simply enjoy being on the field. I want to have fun," the soft-spoken star said.

Zidane, 29, certainly has had his share of exhilarating moments.

At 13, he left the tough Castellane district in Marseille for a youth program at a local club, Cannes. Ten years later, Zidane reached the final of the UEFA Cup with Bordeaux.

After moving to Juventus, he won the Italian championship two years running, becoming a star in the soccer-mad country.

"It's Juventus that gave me this standing," Zidane said. "Without this club, perhaps everything would be different."

But Zidane's greatest achievements were to come in the international game.

He scored twice against the Czech Republic in his first match for France and later reached the semifinals of the 1996 European Cup.

His France '98 campaign began on a sour note after he stomped on a Saudi Arabian player in a first-round game, earning a two-match suspension.

Instantly recognizable by his big bald patch, the playmaker was back to face Italy in the quarterfinals, converting a penalty kick in the shootout.

Few could have predicted what happened next.

In the final against Brazil, the big favorite for the title, Zidane scored twice in the first half with near-identical headers. Although Emmanuel Petit netted the third and final goal, the stunning French victory belonged to Zidane.

When the French team paraded down the Champs-Elysees the next day, hundreds of thousands of fans chanted "Zizou for president, Zizou for president," using Zidane's nickname.

Alongside supporters waving the blue, white and red of the French flag were those raising the Algerian national colors--white, green and red--in honor of Zidane's North African origins.

The exploits earned Zidane his first FIFA award and European player of the year honors for 1998.

At the 2000 European Championship, Zidane was again decisive in the quarterfinals against Spain and the semifinals against Portugal, and his team went on to beat Italy in the final.

"Zidane is the only French player better than in 1998," Michel Platini, considered the best soccer player France ever produced, said at the time. "The others take advantage of Zizou's aura."

Zidane received a second FIFA player of the year award, but Real Madrid midfielder Luis Figo narrowly beat him for top European player in 2000.

The two midfielders set aside their rivalry when Zidane joined Real Madrid last summer in a record $65-million transfer from Juventus.

"It is true that he is extremely expensive, but they are paying this price because Zinedine Zidane is simply the best player in the world," Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi said at the time.

The Frenchman made a slow start in Spain, but his dazzling ball control and perfectly measured passing soon helped Madrid rise to the top of the league.

Real Madrid "is the best team I have ever played for, I have total freedom on the field," Zidane said. "The most difficult soccer is in Italy, but the most beautiful is in Spain."

Zidane's elevated status in the sport means he is often called on to support public causes, such as road safety and racial tolerance. His Algerian origins make him a unifying force in France, where antipathy toward the North African minority and its descendants sometimes runs high.

Zidane's temper sometimes runs hot in matches.

He received a lengthy Champions League suspension for butting a player in a Juventus game during the 2000-01 season, an act that probably cost him the European award.

With his game still at a peak, Zidane's biggest concern in South Korea and Japan is likely to be avoiding injury and disciplinary sanctions.

Otherwise, Zidane knows there are few who can stand between him and a second World Cup championship.

"We have to try everything to win in South Korea and Japan," he said. "It's not done yet, but we have the means."

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