Return of an icon

N.U. ABILASH

"God exists and he has just returned to international football and to the France team," said Thierry Henry about Zidane's recent return from retirement as his national captain.-AP

RECENTLY, Zinedine Zidane went to Dublin to captain his country in a crucial European Group Four World Cup Qualifier against the Republic of Ireland. To straitjacket the trip as a nationalistic mission to help his country out of the depths of a second successive World Cup humiliation would be a disservice to football.

Zidane's was more a journey to reclaim for the international game the right mix of style, substance and structure. After Euro 2004, when the playmaker par excellence was last seen in a Les Blues shirt hopelessly out of position on the left flank, a Brazilian wizard with flowing hair had taken over the mantle of preserving the beauty of `the beautiful game' by marrying style with substance. In the case of Ronaldinho and Brazil, however, the holding structure within which the mixture took place was, more often than not, sacrificed before individual brilliance.

Though Dublin was Zidane's second competitive match on return, his first outing — France's qualifier against Faroe Islands a few days before the Dublin fixture — was hardly global television material considering the mismatch on offer. Small wonder, then, that a man who knows a thing or two about being a good footballer — Thierry Henry — had this to say about Zidane's return to high-profile competitive international football before the Dublin game: "What I am going to say may sound over the top, but it's the truth. God exists and he has just returned to international football and to the France team."

To understand Henry in concrete terms, over to France and Chelsea full-back William Gallas: "I play differently when `Zizou' is in the side. The way he changes the pace of the game at will means that the rest of us are constantly finding ourselves with more space. He makes everything easier. He visualises the game from the centre of the field, controls it, sets its patterns and formations and unveils its skills and artistry."

Zidane's trip to Dublin could well be seen as the embodied culmination of the journey undertaken a century ago by the Irish literary master James Joyce, who decided that neither Dublin nor London, but Paris, was his muse. After living in all three cities, Joyce acknowledged Paris's heady mix of artistic hedonism and intellectual formalism as the best suited for the new form of fiction writing — modernism — he claimed to represent.

Recently in Dublin, through the most recognisable public figure in France and one of its residents, Paris exhibited before a worldwide television audience what Joyce had found in the city. (Zidane has a house in Paris, though he is still mostly based in Marseille, where he was born.) The perfect mixture of style and substance within a flexible, yet binding, operating system.

After a slow start in the first half, Zidane became himself for a brief period in the beginning of the second half, when he dominated the game. He ran circles around Roy Keane, forced into a defensive role in the second half because of Zidane's influence in the match. In the 69th minute, he won a tussle with Irish defender Kenny Cunningham at the edge of the box, and quietly broke the ball for Thierry Henry to slip it in past Ireland's Newcastle goalkeeper Shay Given for the only goal of the match.

The deed done, coach Raymond Domenech substituted his ageing key man within a few minutes. It was two wins out of two in competitive matches since Zidane's return from retirement (three out of three if one takes into account France's win in a friendly against Ivory Coast, which was more creditable than the 3-0 drubbing of minnows Faroe Islands). France, which was in fourth place in Group Four, struggling to secure even a play-off place let alone automatic qualification as winner of the group, now tops the group jointly with Switzerland with two matches to be played in the first week of October. Automatic qualification to Germany 2006 looks a distinct possibility now, just as it does for other European superpowers Holland, Italy and Portugal though England, after its shocking loss to Northern Ireland, and perennial underachievers Spain may have to take the play-off route to Germany.

Zidane's return to international football explodes the myth that players, even superbly gifted ones and celebrities, are pawns in the hands of the team management. The magician, born to Algerian immigrant parents who migrated to Paris in the late 1960s and who then moved to Marseille, had announced his retirement from international football before France's World Cup Qualifying campaign after not seeing eye to eye with new coach Domenech, who had replaced Jacques Santini after the disastrous Euro `04 campaign where he made the tactical mistake of not putting `God' in the centre of the field.

Zidane, reportedly, made good use of the discretionary space available to him in the negotiations to ensure that Domenech brought back Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele and Juventus central defender Lilian Thurram, who had also announced their retirement from international football allegedly due to differences with the coach. Two more of the old guard — brilliant Arsenal winger Robert Pires and Manchester United defender Mikael Silvestre — are still out of favour with Domenech, and it remains to be seen whether they will be brought back at least in the tour party to Germany, if France qualifies, if not for the last two qualifying matches in early October — the crucial one against fellow Group Four leaders Switzerland and the rather easy one against Cyprus.

Perhaps, Pires may be the victim of Domenech's master plan of inducting fresh legs for the qualifying campaign. This strategy has led to defenders Jean-Alain Boumsong, Willy Sagnol, Gael Givet, midfielders Vikash Dhorasoo (of Mauritian-Indian descent) and Florent Malouda and attacker Ludovic Giuly becoming regulars in the national team. More importantly, it has led to a tactical switch from a flat 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 with a midfield diamond — Zidane operates at its apex just behind the striker and Makelele is at its base with former captain Patrick Vieira and Dhorasoo occupying the middle — and attacking full backs.

If the policy continues, it could well be curtains for Pires, who can play only in very wide traditional positions whereas the new structure requires people to play in marginally left and right positions in the diamond — Malouda, Wiltord and Giuly have all been deployed thus in recent times — and linking with the lone striker, Henry (Djibril Cisse substituting the hit man). With the return of injured David Trezeguet, Domenech might consider deploying him as the lone centre forward with Henry — positioned just behind the Juventus striker and ahead of Zidane — overlapping into attacking wide positions.

Domenech, evidently, has understood that power cannot be exercised foolishly, and that stability is the need of the hour for France, which has seen three coaches since the beginning of the disastrous `no goal' World Cup in Korea and Japan, where an injury-struck Zidane played in only the last of his team's three matches. Roger Lemerre was sacked following the tournament, and his replacement, Jacques Santini, met with the same fate after France went down to eventual champions Greece in Euro '04, failing to defend the title it won in 2000 just as it slumped in 2002 while attempting to retain the World Cup won before delirious Parisians in 1998.

After all, in matters of stability and security, nobody can ask for more than having Zinedine `God' Zidane positioned in the centre of the park and wearing the captain's arm band.

Early qualifiers

1. Germany (as host) 2. Ukraine 3. Argentina 4. Brazil 5. Japan 6. South Korea 7. Iran 8. Saudi Arabia 9. USA 10. Mexico