It’s Zizou or bust for the French


PARIS, AFP

Only Zinedine Zidane, it seems here, can save defending champions France from the ignominy of an early exit from the World Cup finals.

The world’s most expensive player missed his country’s first two games in South Korea which saw them lose to Senegal and draw against Denmark.

But all the signs are that he will be back in time for the do-or-die Group A finale against Denmark in Incheon today.

France must win by two clear goals if they want to maintain an interest in a tournament which they started as joint favorites with Argentina.

“The force is with them,” ran the optimistic headline in Monday’s L’Equipe alongside a photo of Zidane.

“Zidane, the return of the Saviour,” echoed the headline inside Le Parisien.

But despite Zidane’s much-anticipated return, the odds are stacked against the World Cup holders and the consequences could be dire both on and off the field.

It would signal the end of France’s reign as the kings of world football, and there would be questions marks against Lemerre despite him recently signing a new contract taking up to the Euro 2004 finals in Portugal.

Many of the players would also likely retire from international football or be jettisoned.

Outside of football, a defeat would also see shares plummet in TF1, the television channel which has poured millions into the French team.

Commercial damage is also predicted. After the World Cup win in 1998 the French team, to a man, began endorsing a wide range of products and services which boosted the country’s commercial sector.

Tuesday’s match grips the country in the middle of parliamentary elections — on Sunday a record 31.1 percent of voters abstained.

The coincidence of voter apathy and the French team’s unexpected fall from grace is up for debate, but France, the toast of the tournament on home soil in 1998, seems preoccupied with the task that lies ahead.

Fans are making preparations to watch the match which begins at 800 a.m. here. Business meetings have been postponed and even train times have been altered to accommodate the projected 10 million plus television audience.

The sports press are, for once, holding back on direct criticism of the team, and calling Lemerre’s troops to arms.

“Tomorrow, we must wake up,” said L’Equipe’s inside page leader, a seemingly dual message of support and criticism which refers to France’s sleepy start to their World Cup campaign.

“Zidane returns, and so does the smile,” said the headline in Le Figaro.

Zidane, who scored twice for France in their 3-0 rout of Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, has been sorely missed but his return is sure to give France a much-needed boost.

“We haven’t had much success so far, but the wheel is turning,” admitted France defender Bixente Lizarazu in Le Parisien. “I regard Zidane’s return as a sign of destiny. The forwards have missed him hugely.”

France, who have only won one of their last five matches (including friendlies before World Cup), should be a different team altogether with Zidane on board.

The Real Madrid playmaker’s influence is undisputed. France have played 45 official matches since Zidane made his debut in 1994, and have never lost an official match with Zidane at the helm.

Without Zidane (18 matches played), France have scored eight wins, six draws and four defeats. With Zidane (27 matches), France notched up an impressive 19 wins and eight draws.