Zidane Seeks to Revive French Soccer Hopes Zinedine Zidane led a cohesive French team of various ancestries to a 1998 World Cup title. Now, with French soccer in disarray and ethnic tensions rising, the son of an Algerian immigrant has come out of retirement.

Zidane Seeks to Revive French Soccer Hopes

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

To say France has been suffering a rough patch these past several months would be an understatement: 9,000 cars torched in last fall's riots; universities closed for weeks by student demonstrators; President Jacques Chirac's approval rating barely above 20 percent; youth unemployment between 20 and 40 percent; and, of course, France lost the 2012 Summer Olympics to the dastardly British.

But then a glimmer of hope: the great Zinedine Zidane announced he was coming back from retirement to lead the French National Soccer Team, the Blues, in the World Cup.

Frank Browning has the story.

FRANK BROWNING reporting:

This Thursday's Parisienne newspaper put it all on the cover: The Blues, The Great Doubt. The photo below showed an anxious Blues coach and the star, Zidane, his head turned down, anxiety creasing his face.

Mr. CHARLIE PARKER (Amateur Soccer Player): First things first, he is the best player of his generation.

BROWNING: That's, Charlie Parker, a lifelong amateur football player who left Britain for France almost 40 years ago and is something of a football sage. In these troubled times, Charlie Parker says, football is not just football, and Zidane is not just a great football player. He grew up in a grizzly Algerian neighborhood of Marseilles and made himself an international success.

Mr. PARKER: What it is about Zidane is the whites, blacks, and people of migratiene(ph) or Arab origin, everybody loves him. He manages to make everybody come together.

BROWNING: Zidane is universally credited as a soccer genius, a playmaker with extraordinary vision on the field. His peak came in 1998 when he led the national team, the Blues, to World Cup championship. Pique(ph), a well-known French cartoonist, says Zidane could have been elected emperor back then.

PIQUE (Cartoonist): Yeah, after the World Cup, it was so much a unity that it seems that every French could work together, even if you're black or Arab. There was no more resistment(ph).

BROWNING: For a moment, all the problems of unemployment and housing and drugs, and suburban violence seemed to fade away. A great sports hero made everyone believe that an Arab guy, albeit a non-religious guy, could be as French as anybody else. It didn't even hurt that Zidane was always under attack by Islamic fundamentalists for not being a devout Muslim.

He had become a rich man through his own talent - shy, modest and still married to his original wife. He gave millions to fight poverty and disease, and formed a kid's clothing chain with zShops all over France. But the Zidane hype, Pique says, proved all to be an illusion.

PIQUE: Zidane was shown as pretext to look, we love Arabs. There was the picture Zidane on the Sacre-Coeur with Zidane President. It was like marketing or - for me it was an horrifying joke.

BROWNING: The real problems, including a jobless rate among young Arab men, sometime topping 60 percent, continued to worsen. The first big sign of the burbling rage in the Arab ghettos surfaced at a France/Algeria Friendship Exhibition match in October 2001, about a month after 9/11. The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, had just begun when the Algerian spectators started whistling, and booing, many of them chanting, bin Laden, bin Laden, bin Laden.

(Soundbite of a French broadcast)

BROWNING: At the time, Tayo Racolle(ph) was a 14-year-old student who became very upset. For Tayo and a lot of hopeful kids, football in general, and Zidane in particular, showed the way toward reconciliation between Arabs and native French.

Mr. TAYO RACOLLE: Zidane represents so much things for us. He is Algerian, but he thinks like French guy because he's French guy. And he loves to be French guy, because today he is in the World Cup. First, he was not there. In 2004, he say, I stop here, that's the end of my career. And then when he see that the French team was so bad, he said, okay, I'll come back. I'm going to help you. We going to be there. And what he say? We are there. So that's a bit like a messiah for us.

BROWNING: On France's first game against Switzerland Wednesday, Zidane did not manage to lead his people out of the wilderness. The two teams reached a 0-0 draw. But France being populated by French people, Zidane and soccer are not just about a player and a game. Everything here is theorized, analyzed and deconstructed. Philosophers, psychoanalysts and political theorists opine daily on Zidane and the future of France, football and the fate of man. A current hot seller in the bookstalls is called A Passionate Dictionary of Football, an A to Z encyclopedia of football and its psychic meanings, from which a few translated entries.

Unidentified Woman: A for anal. If capitalism constitutes one of the great metaphoric expressions of the anal character, in the Freudian sense football would be the nerve center of anal compulsion. C for castration, the reverse of a phallo-centric universe dominated by male values. Castration never ceases to threaten football players.

BROWNING: The final entry, in the Zs is, of course, devoted to Zidane. Z, a magical letter composed of two strong parallel lines united by diagonal bonds linking opposites, high and low, heaven and earth, left and right, front and rear. If the French Blues have any shot at this year's World Cup, it's likely Zidane will have to draw on all the magic his name can command and the good will his genius can inspire. For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

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