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France Belongs to ZZ

July 13, 1998

SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) _ The deeper he carried his countrymen into the tournament, the more people talked. By the end, Zinedine Zidane became a testimonial to how much a simple game can change a nation.

France was not his father’s birthplace, but by nightfall Sunday, the whole nation belonged to him. Two goals on a picture-perfect evening and all of a sudden, the same France that three decades earlier barely let in his Algerian father had the family’s name on its lips.

``It was the first time France is world champion,″ Zidane said, ``so it has to be extraordinary.″

When this World Cup began, the French said they would never lavish their interest and affection on a game, especially one so strongly rooted in the working class. But as the clock pushed the 64th and final game of the tournament toward its stunning conclusion _ France 3, Brazil 0 _ all that Gallic reserve spilled into the streets of Paris like so much bad wine.

And the moment it ended, the man who uncorked all that jubilation took his shirt in both hands, pressed it to his lips, and kissed it. Then the 25-year-old Zidane, who learned to play the game on the narrow streets in the tough Castellane section of Marseilles, kissed his teammates and, finally, the gold trophy itself.

Much of the talk heading into the final was about the glittering stars sprinkled through the roster of four-time champion Brazil: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Denilson.

``But we proved that we have great players, too,″ French coach Aime Jacquet.

If the outcome was unlikely, Zidane’s pivotal role in it was not. It was the way he scored both goals that was unusual.

``Zidane with his head,″ Jacquet said, ``who would have thought that?″

Certainly not the hero himself. His magic was always in his feet. Zidane’s remarkable dribbling skills were honed as a kid playing on a concrete path about 150 yards long and 15 feet wide. It was the one spot in the neighborhood he and his friends could call their own.

``A field to play on? That was too much to ask for,″ Zidane recalled not long ago, after signing a multimillion-dollar deal with the Italian club, Juventus.

But those games prepared him well. By 13, he was good enough to apprentice with the youth program at Cannes. Three years later, he made his debut in France’s First Division, playing against men. Soon he was bought by a bigger club in Bordeaux. By 1996, he had grown too expensive for France, leaving his country to join Juventus, the New York Yankees of club soccer.

In many ways, his career paralleled that of Michel Platini, the former French star who was president of France’s World Cup organizing committee. Both were sons of immigrants, Platini, from an Italian family in the Lorraine region, who also learned the game playing in the streets. Platini, too, starred at Juventus, and like Zidane, came into a World Cup shouldering the hopes of an entire nation.

But Sunday night, they parted company in this sense _ as much as Platini was lionized, a fickle French sporting public has always reserved its biggest ovations for winners. And with the exception of a Davis Cup and a world handball title or so, its champions have always been individuals: Olympic gold medal skier Jean-Claude Killy, Tour de France cyclist Bernard Hinault, and race car driver Alain Prost.

But this win will make luminaries of Zidane and his teammates long after the warm summer’s night celebration along the Champs-Elysees plays itself out.

``It’s incredible,″ said Zidane, showing one more quality he shares with Platini _ shyness. ``There are no words.″

For him, perhaps not. For the rest of France, there will be plenty more.

Earlier in the week, as the nation gathered up the team in an increasingly public embrace, it began to notice how much the players reflected the changing faces of a France struggling to absorb wave after wave of immigrants.

In addition to traditional Frenchmen Emmanuel Petit and Laurent Blanc, ``Les Bleus″ featured blacks, including defenders Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram, who were born in Ghana and Guadeloupe; and ``beurs,″ as North African immigrant families like Zidane’s are known.

As the team’s bandwagon made room for more people, so did the definition of what it meant to be French. And so it was no mistake that when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called himself a supporter, he said he was both Jacquet and Zidane, both coach and player, both native Frenchman and immigrant’s son.

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