Vive le Revolution

"Every generation needs a revolution," wrote former American President THOMAS JEFFERSON. Zinedine Zidane and Les Bleus have given us two, writes N. U. ABILASH.

"Revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets," said Napoleon Bonaparte, the man whom many would consider the famous Frenchman ever. In 2004, exactly two centuries after he declared himself to be the Emperor of France, the country's most popular tabloid Journal du Dimanche announced after conducting a poll that the great military general has been supplanted by a midfield general as the most famous Frenchman ever.

No doubt, Napoleon's spirit lives on in France, whose people are the most vocal opponents of the global hegemony of English language and whose President is vehemently opposed to the incumbent US administration. The nation's modern talisman has done his bit to keep the Napoleonic flag flying; two times in the gap of eight years his vision and imagination have inspired his team-mates to overthrow the Brazilians, the superpowers of world football, in key World Cup contests.

In 1998, Zinedine Zidane's youthful feet were firing on all cylinders, executing the tactics framed by the immensely creative and inspiring manager Aime Jacquet. In 2006, the very same parts of his anatomy, wearied after 10 years of taking tackles by bullish defenders and running around huge European football grounds, were keeping Raymond Domenech — as close to Jacquet as an inspiring force as George Bush is to Abraham Lincoln — happy.

Both times, he was the cornerstone of a strategy and formation devised perfectly to negate the Brazilian strengths; rasping pace in attack and slick, one-touch passing. It was as if the hamstrung horrors of 2002 in Korea and Japan had never happened. Domenech's five-man midfield against Brazil in Germany mirrored the tactic of Jacquet in the 1998 final in Paris. Zidane roamed around in central and wide positions at the front of the midfield both times; Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele took the place of captain Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit as defensive midfielders in `Mission 2006' (Vieira came on as a second-half substitute to link up with Petit for the home team's third goal in `Mission 1998'); the brilliant Frank Ribery and Florent Malouda played wide in Germany, a role performed by Youri Djorkaeff and Christian Karembeu eight years ago. Zidane, along with his two defensive midfielders, dethroned world champions Brazil both times. The two men sitting in front of the back four gave extra defensive cover, and effectively denied space to Brazilian attackers by tight marking. The few times the Brazilian attackers threatened in 2006 (they were non-existent in 1998), the midfield anchors tackled remarkably well — Kaka, for instance, was rendered invisible by Vieira and Makelele though Ronaldinho, promoted to a more advanced position for the first time in the tournament, threatened a couple of times.

Zidane's style, particularly the ease with which he holds the ball up, is the perfect foil to the Brazilian mantra of speed. Ironically, this is also the reason why Thierry Henry, who also relies on speed, has not combined well with Zidane in international matches.

Though an unmarked Henry — the ageing Roberto Carlos should certainly have known that hands-on-hips is not the right posture while defending set-pieces, especially when allotted the task of marking the world's best forward — poached the match-winner off a curling Zidane free-kick, it says a lot that the assist did not come from open play. There has only been one incident of a Zidane-Henry goal in open play; it was on a deflection from an Irish player, from Zidane's pass, that Henry pounced to score during last year's World Cup qualifier.

Zidane slows down the pace of the game at will. He is a master at ensuring that the pace of the game matches his natural rhythm. He takes the ball, transfers it from one foot to another, looks up, sizes up things, gets into his dribbling act, if challenged, and distributes the ball with accuracy and vision. Even his dribble is not the high-speed one of the South American geniuses; it is slow, stately and measured like all things connected to him.

The French masters perfectly executed a strategy to destroy the youthful Spanish team, considered by many as title favourites after their attacking displays in the first round, in the pre-quarterfinals. The five-man midfield was again the bulwark of the strategy; noticing that the Spanish back four was setting the off-side trap for Henry, the lone French forward, the Arsenal striker started wandering into off-side positions deliberately and distracting the Spanish defenders. He did this with the intention of bringing about the following sequence of events: one of the five French midfielders would make a run in to attacking positions after being played in by another one; the Spanish defenders would be caught in the complacency that Henry is offside; and the Arsenal man would remain static thereby bringing into play the passive off-side ruling, which states that the referee can call off-side only when the man who is in such a position is interfering with the passage of play. Ribery's equaliser that came out of Vieira's vision signalled the success of the tactic.

It is said that the extra baggage of the 1998 triumph was the centre-forward Stephane Guivarch. It could be hardly said so about `Brazil Bashing 2006' and Thierry Henry, who made the following statement when Zidane announced his decision to come out of international retirement to help France book a place in Germany: "God exists, and he has just made a return to the French team."

Perhaps, as Nelson Mandela would testify, the best possible job for humans to become God is masterminding a revolution. "Every generation needs a revolution," wrote former American President Thomas Jefferson. Zinedine Zidane and Les Bleus have given us two.