A pioneer in dribbling the game

Though it has won only one World Cup title in 14 appearances, the nation has been in the forefront in the business of propagating football.

The French, who played a major role in the setting up of FIFA in 1904 and the institution of the World Cup in 1930, have always commanded respect in football, though they have been crowned World champion only once in 14 appearances till date.

The game, as elsewhere in Europe and in many parts of the globe, was introduced in France by British immigrants in the middle of the 19th century and the passion with which the natives took to the game is a fascinating story by itself. So much so it is hard for any student of the game to ignore such iconic figures as Jules Rimet, who as FIFA President was instrumental in persuading member nations of the global body to organise the World Cup for the first time, and Lucien Laurent, who scored the first ever goal at the new tournament.

Yet, the Les Bleus didn’t do well during the initial years of the premier event, exiting at the group stage itself in 1930 and 1934 and in the quarter-final round in 1938. And in 1950, as the World Cup was reinvented after World War II, France withdrew at the last-minute citing the huge costs involved in the travel of its team to Brazil.

The 1954 tournament in Switzerland too was a forgettable chapter for France with the team failing again at the initial hurdle. However, four years later, coinciding with the rise of its first golden generation of players such as Just Fontaine, Raymond Koppa, Jean Vincent and Robert Jonquet, France made an impact in Sweden finishing third. Fontaine was the top-scorer of the tournament with 13 goals, which even today is an individual record for the most number of goals scored in a single tournament.

However, the French fortunes floundered once again with the team’s failure to qualify in 1962, early elimination in 1966 and the humiliation of being left behind at home in both 1970 and 1974. France did qualify in 1978, but was knocked out in the group stage itself before finding renaissance in the 1980s with the emergence of its second generation of golden stars in Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez, Dominique Rocheteau, Marius Tresor and Maxime Bossis.

France, served well by these players, reached the semifinals in 1982 before being knocked out controversially by West Germany, in what is commonly referred to now as the “Battle of Seville.” History repeated itself four years later in Mexico with France running into its nemesis West Germany once again. However, with a win over Belgium in the losers’ final, France finished third in the tournament.

The cycle of ill-fortune was to visit the French once again as they failed to qualify for both the 1990 and 1994 editions. But all the ignominy of the preceding years was finally erased at home in 1998 as the team under Aime Jacquet finally reached the pinnacle, triggering off nation-wide celebrations. The team led by Didier Deschamps and kept fully charged all through by key figures like Zinedine Zidane, Fabien Barthez, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Thierry Henry maintained a clean slate in Group C before pounding its way into the final at the expense of Paraguay, Italy and Croatia in the knock-out rounds. It eventually blanked Brazil 3-0 in the final to get to the top of the world.

However, France was brought crashing down to earth in 2002 at South Korea and Japan. It was left shell-shocked by Senegal 1-0 in the opening match and then was forced to return home with a no-win record in the group matches. The French seemed to be cruising towards a second title in 2006 before being stopped by Italy via the tie-breaker in a controversial final, marred by the head-butt of Zidane on rival Marco Materazzi. And in 2010 in South Africa, France once again under-performed in another of its trysts with history.

* * * Zizou, control and scoring ability

A player of perfect balance and subtle skills, Zinedine Zidane is regarded as one of the best players ever to have entered a football pitch. In his prime, he was regarded as the embodiment of control with the ball at his feet, measured passes with timely releases and a perfect shot at goal.

Born on June 23, 1972, in Marseille to immigrant Algerian couple, Zidane's talent was spotted by AS Cannes' scout Jean Varraud, who helped the youngster hone his skills with the Cannes youth club. After making his professional debut in 1989, he was transferred to Bordeaux in 1992, and it was here that Zidane largely developed as a player. A move to Juventus FC in 1996 saw Zidane make an impact in the Italian Serie A. In the 1998 World Cup, Zidane was the linchpin of the French team that won the championship at home. With his crisp passing and dribbling skills and goal-scoring abilities, he spearheaded Les Blues to victory in the EURO 2000.

In 2001, Real Madrid signed Zidane for a record transfer fee and three years later, he was adjudged Europe's best player over the past 50 years in a poll conducted as part of the UEFA Golden Jubilee celebrations.

Zidane, however, had a shocking end to his career. In the ?nal of the 2006 World Cup against Italy, he was red carded for head-butting Italian Marco Materazzi. Nevertheless, his deeds during a career that spanned a dozen years and 108 caps for his country will always remain legendary.