France has been blessed with some of the greatest midfielders of the modern era, but the Manchester United man is yet to live up to the hype.
It is the night of July 12, 1998. The place is Paris.
Throngs of jubilant locals gather on the famous Champs Elysees to celebrate a historic moment. France have just beaten Brazil 3-0 to claim their first World Cup title.
In doing so, a star has been born. His face has been projected, fittingly, onto the Arc de Triomphe – the fabled monument which stands in the middle of one of the world’s craziest roundabouts.
The image of Zinedine Zidane is complemented by just two words: “Merci Zidane.”
The midfielder’s birth certificate may suggest that he was born on June 23, 1972, but this was the evening upon which his legend was given true life.
Zidane was special for many reasons, not least because he picked up the baton carried in the 1980s by the brilliant Michel Platini, a player of equal talent. The attempts of ‘Platoche’ to lead France to world glory were ill-fated, however, as circumstances seemed to persistently rob a talented squad of the fortune they were surely due.
Platini was the first in a sequence of magical French midfielders. Zidane emerged in the next generation and ahead of World Cup 2018 there is still the hope that Paul Pogba – once the world’s most expensive player – can be his successor.
Both Platini and Zidane carried the hopes of a nation, and while Pogba may not need such broad shoulders due to the exceptional talent around him in Russia, the platform he has built for himself means that the pressure is very much on.
If he were under any illusions about the task facing him, his experience at the Allianz Riviera during France’s 3-1 friendly victory over Italy on June 1 will have enlightened him. During that match, he was jeered by the French supporters.
Such criticism from a demanding crowd is certainly not alien in France, as Kylian Mbappe was at pains to point out after the match.
“He plays abroad, so he’s not used to it,” the Paris Saint-Germain forward said. “I’m going to explain to him that it’s like that here. I played with it all year. You have to get used to it. We put our earplugs in and score goals.”
Pogba has created a formidable social media profile that has rivalled his €105 million transfer fee, and the expectation is that he justifies that global presence on the pitch with regular world-class performances.
“I’ve got the impression that whatever Pogba does, we always ask him to do more,” Mbappe noted. “You have to admire the player you have and be aware how lucky we are that he’s French.”
Rather than standing on the shoulders of giants like Platini and Zidane, Pogba is desperately clamouring to become their equal.
That in itself is a formidable task.
Platini’s reputation may have been soiled by his activities away from the field – he was involved in a slush fund scandal while he was a Saint-Etienne player and is currently serving an eight-year ban from all football for ethics violations – but on the pitch he is remembered as one of the all-time greats.
He is best known for his role as a No.10, and it was in that position he starred in the famed ‘carre magique’ (magic square) of the 1980s alongside Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez and Jean Tigana. Fine players though they all were, it was Platini who was the standout.
In 72 internationals, he captained his country 50 times while he was France’s all-time leading scorer with 41 goals, which was a record that stood until the emergence of Thierry Henry.
Like all the greats, though, his legacy was defined on the biggest stage. And for France, that arrived at Euro ‘84, which was played on home soil. Platini was the undoubted star of the tournament, scoring nine times in five games, including the final, and brought with him the tactical rigour that he had learned in Italy with Juventus. It was a complete performance.
Before Platini, France had enjoyed little success as a footballing nation. Under his influence, however, they threatened to win both the 1982 and 1986 editions of the World Cup. The manner of their defeat in Spain, in particular, only helped cement that generation into the nation’s footballing folklore as West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher infamously went unpunished for flattening Patrick Battiston.
“He had no pulse. He looked so pale,” Platini said after the game, believing that his team-mate had been killed.
Having been given years to reflect on the match, however, the No.10 said: “That was my most beautiful game. What happened in those two hours encapsulated all the sentiments of life itself. No film or play could ever recapture so many contradictions and emotions. It was complete. So strong. It was fabulous.”
It was a glorious and unjust defeat that added to the folklore of Platini and the national team, who struggled so much in its formative years. France may now be seen as an international behemoth, but Les Bleus only attained an aggregate positive goal difference in 1997, having spent nearly 92 years in deficit.
That curiously celebrated semi-final loss helped to cement the idea of the ‘Asterix complex’ in the identity of the national team. Named after a cartoon character known for his plucky efforts against the odds in battles against the Romans, this was the belief that France were destined to be eternal losers. It stretched beyond football, of course, but it was encapsulated in the game.
Instead, there was a sentiment that the only way that the French could receive recognition in the sport was by playing football the ‘right’ way. Winning major titles was simply beyond them, so style became more important than substance.
As such, beautiful players became more prized than effective ones and often coaches would set about maximising the individual qualities of stars rather than seeking to get the best out of the team as a collective.
On a world scale, not even the brilliance of Platini – Asterix in this footballing context – could transform the fortunes of the nation.
Despite being of Italian heritage, he represented the ‘old’ France, beautiful to watch but successful only up to a point.
When Zidane arrived, however, he very much represented the ‘new’ and confirmed this by leading France to World Cup 1998 success, emerging as a symbol of integration in a nation temporarily united after a colonial history.
From the notorious Marseille district of La Castellane, the son of a warehouseman, he was an example that anyone could make it to the very top in France. Indeed, a 2004 poll in the newspaper Journal du Dimanche.
crowned him the ‘Most Popular Frenchman of All Time’.
In the wake of France’s empire crumbling in the 1950s and 60s, immigrants like Zidane’s parents streamed into the country, leading to a broad ethnic mix that rapidly changed the make-up of society.
Prior to the 1998 World Cup, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had questioned the national team, suggesting that the likes of Patrick Vieira and Marcel Desailly, born in Senegal and Ghana respectively, had declared for France due to business rather than patriotic reasons.
The squad for the tournament contained players who could trace their origins back from Guadeloupe to New Caledonia via Armenia, Argentina, Africa, Spain and more. Among the 23-man panel, of course, was also Zidane, born in Marseille but of Kabyle extraction.
It was a team considered to be representative of the ‘black-blanc-beur’ nation that the country had become.
Leading them was Aime Jacquet, a coach whose popularity was to become enormous because of the traditional values that he embodied and due to the hardship he endured in the build-up to the competition, during which he had his approach ridiculed by the press.
His loyalty to Zidane was to prove priceless. He chose to stick by the No.10 throughout the competition, despite the erstwhile Juventus man having toiled up to the final. After an assist in Les Bleus’ opening game, a 3-0 win over South Africa, he had been sent off in the next match against Saudi Arabia and had not produced a tangible moment of excellence thereafter.
“If you have a match to choose, this is it,” suspended captain Laurent Blanc told the No.10 on the morning of the final.
Zizou did just that.
Forty-five minutes of unrestrained excellence was all it required for him to provide France with the platform they required to become world champions, scoring two headers from set pieces.
“During the days before the final, Aime Jacquet focused on corners,” he revealed to L’Equipe. “He told me: ‘Zizou, I know that heading is not your strong point, but Roberto Carlos is only 1.70m and Leonardo is not much bigger, so I guarantee that if you attack the ball with conviction you can do something.’
“And it happened like that.”
Even if his performance dipped, like that of his team-mates, in the second period, his contribution had been decisive even before Emmanuel Petit added a third.
And the match proved a pivotal event, both in the history of the nation and the story of the life of one man.
“I didn’t know how much of an effect it would have at the time,” he admitted, “but for sure my life changed with this game.
“I became the player who marked the history of French football. People’s attitudes towards me changed, the way they looked at me, I felt it every time I met someone. It was really beautiful…”
On a national basis, it lifted the spirits, stymying the advances of the political right, at least for a period, even if the team itself paid little heed to the notion.
“It was the media and society that gave birth to the concept,” Alain Boghossian, a member of the 1998 squad, told L’Equipe . “We were just a group of team-mates with only one flag to defend, France, and only one colour to wear, the blue of our jersey.”
Thierry Henry lamented: “That feeling died out quickly. It’s a pity. For a little while, we were all French, whatever our skin colour. And that was priceless.”
If this phenomenon was more than simply about Zidane, there was no doubt that he was the posterboy.
For French football, meanwhile, the Asterix complex had been wiped out in one swift stroke. They had shown that they were capable of winning the very biggest prizes; the idea of France the eternal loser was obliterated.
In that regard, it was symbolic that one of the most graceful players in the modern era scored two of the most basic goals possible to guide them to glory.
Zidane’s spectacular Champions League-winning volley for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 may go down as his finest ever goal, yet his simple headed brace in Saint Denis may well be the moments that resonate longest in his birthland.
His fame, of course, is not merely restricted to L’Hexagone. In 2007, a Brazilian who had been so taken by the France star – as well as a handful of his team-mates – elected to call his son Zinedine Yazid Zidane Thierry Henry Barthez Eric Felipe Silva Santos.
There can be few greater honours for a footballer than having a child named after you in such a football-mad country, particularly for a player who scored twice to defeat the nation in such an important game. At last count in 2016, there were 827 ‘Zidanes’ in Brazil – all born after 1998.
Pogba, the social media superstar, has yet to make such an impact on the park.
Nevertheless, Rio Ferdinand – a great at Manchester United – believes that he can develop into the spectacular player expected of him.
“Pogba has the ability to go out there and dominate the World Cup,” he told Goal. “He is a fantastic footballer. But the problem at the moment is pressure. How does he deal with the expectations of a nation and how can he deal with that pressure?
“He is someone who is desperate to put his mark on the game and he will be going all out to do that. He definitely, no doubt in my mind, has the ability to do it. It is whether he can put it all together in this space of time, within a tournament.”
Claude Makelele, a Euro 2000 winner with Les Bleus and a player forever associated with defensive midfielders, believes that the 25-year-old can still develop into a decisive player for his country – but he warned that he must be prepared to shoulder more responsibility.
“I told him when I met him that he can take on the responsibility [of helping France win honours] because he is a great player. He has everything,” the former Chelsea and Real Madrid man said.
“He is tall, with great technique, he can score goals, he gets assists – he has everything. He shouldn’t be scared and he should just do the job.”
Makelele, though, is not prepared simply to level that criticism against only Pogba.
“These young players need to understand that when you wear the shirt of the national team that you need to die for this shirt,” he said. “In my generation, everyone was dying for the shirt. You need to understand this.
“When you wear this shirt, you have the whole country behind you. The players need to understand that. I think when they understand that, then they will win the World Cup again.”
As such, Pogba’s happy-go-lucky Instagram image may please the social media generation, but for the diehard supporter, it serves only to frustrate, a seemingly omnipresent indication that the player could be giving more to the cause, if not on the field, then certainly in terms of focus away from it.
“He played against Manchester City with his hair dyed blue and white, maybe he’ll have it red and white to play us,” Denmark coach Age Hareide commented in May, echoing the thoughts of a strong percentage of the domestic population. “Does he only think about haircuts?”
A recent poll conducted by Odoxa on behalf of RTL found that 81% thought that Zidane’s generation of 1998 had a better attitude and 78% felt that they had a greater desire to win.
Of course, this may be supporters looking back with blue-tinted spectacles, but as Pogba is only too aware: image is everything.
And with the national side no longer burdened with the Asterix complex that it once was, simply looking good is not enough.
Perhaps elegant football was sufficient to satisfy a doubting nation in the 1980s during the Platini era, but Zidane changed everything. Now it is a country that has tasted success and is eager to do so once more.
Zidane and to a lesser extent Platini were social phenomena, whose influence reached beyond the footballing realm. Their brilliance on the football field helped to alter the country in which they lived.
This is the standard to which Pogba is held in his homeland; to those backing Les Bleus, 30 million social media subscribers simply won’t cut it.
As Ferdinand pointed out: “You can’t compare Pogba to Platini and Zidane yet. Those two players went into different stratospheres with what they have done in football.
“Platini won the European
Championship and he won titles with Juventus. And Zidane was a serial winner in the French national team, World Cup and European Championship – and then with his clubs as well. And now he is winning as a manager.
“You cannot compare yet. Pogba still has a career to finish before you can compare players like that.”
In a recent ranking produced by French sports daily L’Equipe , which lists the top 100 France players of all time, it was Zidane who was out in front ahead of Platini at No.1. To find Pogba, one must trawl all the way to 78th, behind the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema, who has been cast from the side since 2015.
If the Manchester United star is to see his image on one of Paris’ famous monuments, which would surely make an Instagram post for the ages, it is time for him to define himself on the football field.