French-Algerian Soccer Star a Uniting Figure

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French soccer fans are cheering their World Cup team and its captain, Zinedine Zidane. The player is one of the most admired public figures in France, and his Algerian background makes him an interesting symbol of unity in a country often torn apart by racial and ethnic tensions. Genevieve Oger reports from Paris.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Mon dieu. France plays its second game in the World Cup soccer tournament this Sunday. And French fans everywhere will be rooting for their revered team captain, Zinedine Zidane. He's the son of poor Muslim immigrants from Algeria. You'll recall news reports from France over the last year with stories of discord and unhappiness, even rioting over the poor social conditions of many of these people.

Writer Salman Rushdie says, the soccer play of Zinedine Zidane, quote, "has done more to improve France's attitude toward its Muslim minority than a thousand political speeches."

From Paris, Genevieve Oger reports.

GENEVIEVE OGER reporting:

The atmosphere at the small bar on Paris's Left Bank is positively explosive. It's standing room only here, as the crowd watches the French team play Switzerland. The mood is festive, but pregnant with tense anticipation. Masters student Juliandar Theird(ph) says there are high hopes for the team and especially for Captain Zinedine Zidane.

Mr. JULIANDAR THEIRD (Student): Zinedine Zidane is a very, very, very beautiful player. He has a very good game with the ball. He's the man of the French team. As soon as he has the ball he becomes magical.

OGER: The soccer player's Algerian heritage is the closest thing the French have to a demigod. He consistently comes up as France's favorite personality in public opinion polls among people of all classes and backgrounds.

The crowd has spilled out into the street, where a few homeless people are watching the game through the bar's window, enjoying their cans of beer. Stephan Andercamp(ph) says he's been homeless for eight years, but he likes to follow the French team and the key players, nonetheless.

Mr. STEPHAN ANDERCAMP: (Through translator) He's an exceptional player. He's the best player right now. I appreciate him a lot. It's also about what he does off the field. He's an ambassador for the my cozy-something foundation, you know, a childhood disease. He's just an outstanding person. He's humble and he doesn't act like a star.

OGER: Zidane worship can be upscale as well. At this publishing house down the street, employees have gathered to watch the game in one of the meeting rooms. Half men, half women, all are big fans of Zidane's, including Frances Ligi(ph).

Ms. FRANCES LIGI (Zidane fan): (Through translator) I like him a lot, because of his simplicity and the fact he is so discreet. I met him actually, when I was working in a bookstore, and he behaved in a very simple manner. He came in, he bought his book, just like anyone else. I looked at him, just like I'm looking at you, and I could tell he has a real look of peace in his eyes. And I think he can bring a lot to young people.

(Soundbite of football announcers speaking French)

OGER: Zidane became a living legend during the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil. No one ever thought the French team would even make it to the finals, but when he scored two goals with his head during the final, leading France to a 3-0 victory against the tournament favorites, he became a household name. And a powerful symbol of France's multiethnic reality.

(Soundbite of football announcers)

OGER: Later on that night, a million people gathered on the Champs-Elysees in Paris to celebrate. The Arc de Triomphe, which had been converted into a huge screen, flashed portraits of Zidane and words like Merci Zizou, Zidane's nickname. This national superstar was born in Marseille, in a public housing project home to poor immigrant families. He learned to play soccer on a concrete square there. His parents were immigrants from Algeria. After being discovered by a talent scout at 14, Zidane went on to an impressive career, playing for teams all over Europe.

Zidane's success is particularly meaningful for other young people of non-French background. Twenty-six-year-old Malig Baynee(ph) is from a public housing project in suburb outside Paris, the kind of place where young people rioted last fall. Like Zidane, Malig's family is from North Africa. He says Zidane means a lot to people like him.

Mr. MALIG BAYANEE (North African Immigrant): (Through translator) Zidane embodies the hope of winning. He's everything. He manages the playing strategy for the whole team. Thanks to him, the team won the '98 World Cup. It changed a lot of things. And the fact that he's Algerian, it opened the eyes of a lot of people, which was good. That kind of thing is important, you know. Because if the French team wins, everyone wins, including the French people.

OGER: Of course Zidane is the kind of minority French society likes, he's discreet, devoted to his family, and a non-practicing Muslim. So there are no special demands, like special dietary needs or asking time out to pray. The types of demands that have been causing strains in France society as it adapts to diversifying population.

(Soundbite of crowds)

OGER: Of course, those strains take a backseat during the World Cup, when Zizou is just a star player. The next French game is Sunday against South Korea. Expect the streets of France to be virtually empty at kick-off time and most everyone in front of their television sets. For National Public Radio, I'm Genevieve Oger in Paris.

CHADWICK: However his team does in the World Cup, Zinedine says after this tournament, he's done with pro soccer.

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