When Zinedine Zidane made his international debut in 1994, the France national side was in a terrible state.
Less than 10 years after Michel Platini’s nine-goal heroics at the 1984 Euros, Gerard Houllier’s team had just failed to qualify for the World Cup despite being drawn in a relatively favourable group that also contained Sweden, Bulgaria, Israel, Austria and Finland.
The top two from each group earned a place at the finals in the USA, but France lost their opening game in Bulgaria and then suffered a shocking 3-2 defeat at home to Israel, whose standing as bottom seeds put them alongside the likes of San Marino, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands.
It left France needing a point in their final qualification game, the return fixture from that loss against Bulgaria, but remarkably, they were beaten again, with Emil Kostadinov cancelling out Eric Cantona’s 31st minute opener before applying the finishing touch at the end of a last-minute counter-attack permitted by an infamously wayward David Ginola cross.
If France wanted to get back to the top of the international game, they needed to find a belated but worthy heir to Platini to build their squad around. In Zidane, they found him.
His debut came as a 22-year-old in August of ’94 when he came off the bench with France 2-0 down in a friendly against the Czech Republic and scored twice to secure a draw. A star was born.
Eric Cantona’s lengthy suspension for hurdling an advertising board to launch a kick at a Crystal Palace fan opened the door for Zidane to secure the No.10 role ahead of Euro 96, and he went on to start five games as France reached the semi-finals before falling short in a penalty shootout following a goalless draw with the Czech Republic.
As disappointing as that was, it confirmed that France were still capable of performing at major tournaments – the shot in the arm they needed as they prepared to host the 1998 World Cup.
With the world watching, France had the perfect crop of up-and-coming young players to help them move on from the humiliation of missing out in 1994.
Zidane had been the youngest player in Aimé Jacquet’s squad for Euro 96, but two years later he was the senior of such future giants of the game as Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet.
France also had the experience and leadership of Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly in their squad, but they entered the tournament not quite knowing what to expect.
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For all the flaws of FIFA’s world ranking, their pre-tournament standing as only the world’s 18th best side tells its own story, while their warm-up games ahead of the World Cup were unpromising to say the least.
But Jacquet’s men put that to one side immediately with three wins from their three group games, though they needed extra-time to get past Paraguay in the second round and a penalty shootout victory over Italy to book their place in the semis.
The tournament’s dark horses Croatia provided France’s biggest challenge yet, but Thuram picked the perfect time to score the first of only two international tournament goals in his career, overturning Davor Suker’s strike to put Les Bleus through to a clash with favourites Brazil in the final.
The big story at the time was the situation around Brazil’s star striker Ronaldo, who was declared unfit to play amid rumours – later confirmed – that he had suffered a fit.
Yet at the last minute he was surprisingly announced in Brazil’s starting line-up, Des Lynam’s announcement of which will remain one of the abiding memories of the tournament.
But by the end of that night, nobody was talking about Brazil. This was France’s moment, not just for football, but for society as a whole.
Before the tournament, the French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had complained that the side was “not a real French team”, making no bones about what he meant: this was a multi-racial, multi-cultural French side with players from immigrant backgrounds, and in Le Pen’s eyes, that meant they were not to be celebrated.
But all of that had been turned on its head by a World Cup triumph.
Far from being figures of hate, Thuram, Desailly, Henry, Youri Djorkaeff and others were recognised as national heroes for their efforts – but none of them more so than Zidane, a child of Algerian Muslim immigrants who grew up in a Marseille tower block.
The concerns about what kind of response the national side might get in Paris were serious enough to motivate the tournament organisers to stage France’s opening match, a 3-0 victory of South Africa, in Marseille, rather than in the capital.
Zidane’s background left him more vulnerable than most of the French squad to hateful abuse: just three years earlier, Algerian militants killed eight people with a bomb on the Paris metro.
So when Zidane was declared man of the match for his heroic performance in the final, and his face was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe alongside the slogan “Zidane President”, the symbolism was clear to outsiders, even if it was not entirely apparent to the players themselves at the time.
A diverse group of young men, from all backgrounds and stations in life, had worked together to become world champions and unite a fractured nation. This renewed spirit of liberty, fraternity and equality became known in France as “l’effet Zidane” (the Zidane effect).
Marcel Desailly, who was sent off in the final for a second yellow card, told Andrew Hussey in 2005: “The World Cup made Zidane a star and an icon, but that was because he was a very intelligent man who knows how to make sacrifices for the team.
“He has Algerian origins – and it is even more difficult to be an Algerian rather than a black man in France – and the problem is that no one knows how much his origins affect his playing ability. He doesn’t talk about it much.
“I don’t even know if he is fluent in Arabic, or just puts together a few words. But he was lucky to have a family who gave him a very wholesome and beautiful education. It taught him humility and motivation, and that comes through in the man he is today.”
In a film, this is where the story would end, with the scrappy underdogs fighting their way from nothing to world champions, proving their haters wrong along the way.
But in football, there is always a sequel, and France would have to try and do it again at Euro 2000.
They did not disappoint. With Zidane in the best form of his international career, France secured their passage to the quarter-finals before their final group game against the Netherlands, who won 3-2 to top the group.
The Dutch, who co-hosted the tournament with neighbours Belgium, were arguably the side of the tournament, beating Yugoslavia 6-1 in the quarter finals, but they were held to a 0-0 draw by Italy in the semis, who went on to finally win a penalty shootout to reach the final.
France’s defeat to the Netherlands, meanwhile, pushed them into a much more challenging quarter final with Spain, who they beat 2-1 in normal time, before another Iberian encounter pitted them against Portugal in the semi-finals.
Thierry Henry cancelled out Nuno Gomes’ opener to force the game into extra time, and with the golden goal rule in force, France were awarded a penalty just three minutes before the end the additional 30 minutes for an Abel Xavier handball.
Zidane was the man to step up to the spot, knowing a goal would put France in a second successive major final. He buried it.
The final against Italy lived up to expectations. It was a pulsating game, and Italy looked set to win their first major tournament since the 1982 World Cup through Marco Delvecchio’s 55th minute strike until Sylvain Wiltord hammered the ball into the bottom corner in injury time to force another 30 minutes.
Just as had happened at Euro 96, it was the side who had come from behind who found the golden goal, with Trezeguet getting onto the end of Pires’ pullback and firing past Francesco Toldo.
With that, France became the first side to win back-to-back tournaments since West Germany in 1974.
Sadly, France’s defence of their status as world champions went horrendously wrong in 2002.
Zidane had picked up a thigh injury in the build-up to the tournament and didn’t make his first start until the third group game, by which point France had already been eliminated.
Furthermore, the retirements of Blanc and Deschamps precipitated a period of terrible squabbling within the French camp, which got so bad that Zidane – by now universally recognised as the finest player in the world and in terrific form for Real Madrid – admitted he considered quitting the international scene there and then.
However, he stayed on through to Euro 2004, which again ended in disappointment amid fractions in the squad as France exited to surprise winners Greece in the quarter finals.
After announcing his international retirement later that summer, Zidane admitted: “I actually wanted to stop before Euro 2004. Something was broken after the 2002 World Cup, and Euro 2004 was the last straw.
“Perhaps it is easier for me to stop now than if we had won Euro 2004; I think it is easier to go after you have lost.”
But the following summer, Zizou was talked into returning as captain of Les Bleus, giving him the opportunity to lead them to one last tilt at World Cup glory. He had announced that the tournament would be his last as a player for either club or country.
France gathered steam throughout the tournament after scraping unconvincingly through the group stage, and with Zidane providing the decisive goals and assists at every step of the knockout tournament, they saw off Spain, Brazil and Portugal to set up another meeting with Italy in the final.
Neither side had been at all fancied at the beginning of the tournament, but with Italy embroiled in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal and French football in ongoing crisis, it was the perfect chance for one of the two sides to gain some much-needed redemption.
Zidane had already been named player of the tournament prior to the final, and he opened the scoring with a seventh-minute spot kick, an almost-bodged Panenka that dropped over the line off the crossbar, but Marco Materazzi’s equaliser forced extra time.
What followed is so famous as to be hardly worth recapping, with Materazzi provoking Zidane so strongly that the Frenchman launched a stooping headbutt into Materazzi’s chest.
The incident was spotted by the fourth official, Zidane was dismissed, and Italy went on to win the penalty shootout 5-3.
Zidane had pre-emptively explained his actions two years previously.
“It’s hard to explain but I have a need to play intensely every day, to fight every match hard, and this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up,” he said.
“Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.”
For better or worse, Zidane stayed true to himself until the end.