King Zizou rules again

Zinedine Zidane poses with the FIFA World player 2003 award . — Pic. REUTERS-

WHAT a difference a year in the life of a footballer can make!

Just over a year ago, French and Real Madrid midfielder Zinedine Zidane had to sit injured on the sidelines as the defending champion lost its opening match at the 2002 World Cup final to Senegal and then managed only a draw against Uruguay in its second game.

Although not yet fully recovered, Zidane played the full 90 minutes against Denmark in the final match, which the Les Bleus lost 2-0 to exit unceremoniously from the World Cup — becoming the first defending champions since Brazil in 1966, not to qualify for the second round.

But all of that is history, as Zidane was once again crowned as the best footballer of the world, beating compatriot Thierry Henry and Real Madrid team-mate Ronaldo into second and third places respectively.

Zizou, as he is called by adoring fans all over the world, has twice before won this prestigious award (1998 and 2000) and joins Ronaldo as the only player to have won it three times.

The son of Algerian immigrants, Zidane learnt to play football in the backstreets of Marseilles, but signed his first contract with Cannes FC, for whom he played his first game in the first division when he was just 17-years-old.

When Cannes was relegated at the end of the 1991-92 season, Zidane moved to Bordeaux, with whom he managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup final four years later.

At this stage, Zidane was a regular in the French national side and clubs throughout Europe were clamouring to sign him.

Italian Serie A club Juventus eventually made the running and he joined them in the spring of 1996.

Two Italian titles later, he was to embark on the competition that was to establish him as the world's best player — the World Cup in France.

Zidane could not have chosen a better time to score his first World Cup goals than the final, where his two goals did much to give France its first World Cup title, beating Brazil 3-0.

A first Footballer of the Year award followed at the end of 1998, as did the European Championship in 2000 with France. At the end of that year, he was again crowned as the best Footballer of the Year.

He moved to Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2001 for a world record fee of just under 65 million euros and helped the Spanish club continue winning trophies, including the Champions League and Spanish titles.

But it is not only on the field of play that the 31-year-old has grabbed the imagination of the world and his popularity throughout the world has as much to do with his personality as the way in which he plays his passes and scores goals.

In a public poll in France three years ago, Zidane was voted as France's favourite personality, followed by an 87-year-old Catholic priest who gave up a wealthy life to care for the poor.

When a desvastating earthquake hit his fatherland Algeria earlier this year, Zidane organised a friendly match between the 1998 French side and Olympique Marseille. It is yet another indication of his popularity that not only did every single one of the 23 French players from 1998 play some part in the game, 45,000 fans also turned up.

The game raised an estimated 1.5 million euros for worthwhile causes.

Zidane, in his usual modest way, said after the game: "I do not usually talk about issues which are above me, but when such a catastrophe occurs, especially in your country of origin, you want to help and I could help, that is how I thought of this match."

Zidane, who is on record as having said that he is looking forward to a time away from football with his family, is a player who dislikes the limelight into which he automatically falls because of footballing talent.

Zizou is again firmly in the limelight, but it seems certain that yet another accolade will do little to change the gentle personality of this super-star.