Zidane, the personification of elegance of the best France in history

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Berlin, Jul 7 (EFE).- Zinedine Zidane is one of the greatest geniuses in the history of French football. His exquisite technique, exceptional skill and dazzling elegance made him one of the most artistic players to ever touch a ball. His successes with the ‘Les Bleus’ jersey and the magic he displayed on the pitch elevated this virtuoso of the ball to the pantheon of French personalities.

Much more than a footballer. His entry into the ranks of the French national team already foretold that something big was brewing. After their incredible failure in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, being eliminated after losing their last two home games against Israel and Bulgaria when a single point would have been enough to go to the United States, the new coach Aimé Jacquet had the mission of regenerating, with a view to the 1998 World Cup – in which France was to be the host – a team that was still stuck in the memory of the Platini era.

At that time, a generation was beginning to emerge that would mark the destiny of ‘Les Bleus’ for the next decade.

Led by Zidane himself, now wearing the ’10’, Barthez, Djorkaeff, Desailly, Thuram, Lizarazu and Karembeu settled into the new French team and, together with the already established Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc, forged a team that combined both the characteristic French talent and an imposing physique for the time.

His first big test was the 1996 European Championship in England.

After a promising group stage, finishing first in a draw with Spain, Bulgaria and Romania, the good performances offered by the team coached by Jacquet showed signs of weakness in the qualifiers.

After overcoming a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands on penalties in the quarter-finals, Zidane’s team, who would later join Juventus, were left with nothing to show for it in the semi-finals against the Czech Republic. After another goalless draw, luck was not on their side this time from the penalty spot.

Despite their elimination, France had already shown signs of progress and were preparing to complete their final assault on the great heights. In 1998, they won the World Cup on home soil in an unchallenged manner, the first in their history, after beating Brazil in the final with two goals from the then star of Juventus.

That was the condition they presented themselves at the Euro 2000. Already established as one of the biggest stars on the international scene, Zidane headed the figures of ‘Les Bleus’, which had been joined by Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Sylvain Wiltord.

Coached by Roger Lemerre, who had replaced Jacquet after winning the World Cup, France started with a convincing 3-0 victory over Denmark, followed by a tighter 2-1 win over the Czech Republic. In the final duel for first place in the group, France lost to the Netherlands in a brilliant 2-3 match, thanks to a late goal from Boudewijn Zenden.

The defeat condemned Lemerre’s men to the toughest part of the draw, with a quarter-final tie against Spain as their first match. In Bruges, Zidane put his team ahead after half an hour with a masterful free kick into the top corner, which made Cañizares’ stretch useless.

Mendieta equalised from the penalty spot for Camacho’s side, but moments later Djorkaeff’s close-range shot hit the near post surprised the Valencia goalkeeper and gave France the lead again on the stroke of half-time.

In the second half, both sides tried to get close, but without any clear chances, until the play of the match came. A spectacular penalty committed by goalkeeper Barthez on Abelardo, on a loose ball during Spain’s final push, gave Raúl the chance to force extra time, but his shot went over the goal and qualified France for the semi-finals.

In the penultimate round, the French faced Portugal. In a thrilling match that ended in a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes, a controversial handball by former Oviedo player Abel Xavier led to another penalty.

Zidane scored the winning goal, the golden goal, to put the French into the final, amid Figo’s run of form.

The final match of the championship was a spectacular duel between France and Italy. In a clash of alternatives, the transalpines seemed to be starting to grab the cup with a goal-bound shot from Marco Delvecchio at the beginning of the second half, but a lucky cross-shot from Wiltord, near the end of the final, gave Zidane’s men a second life.

And there, they did not forgive. A lightning-fast slalom by Pires down the left flank, including a break past Cannavaro, led to a pass for Trezeguet to shoot into Toldo’s goal.

France were crowned European champions for the second time in their history, and Zinedine Zidane emerged as the lord and master of the tournament.

The French star would still have the chance to repeat his glory at Euro 2004, but the surprising Greece, the eventual champion, knocked out France in the quarter-finals.

Juan Manuel Sanchez

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