"When Zidane arrived it was a strange atmosphere like God was coming on earth. The moment he came back the confidence turned around and we felt like we were the best in the world". Words by Florent Malouda that almost write articles for themselves in describing just what Zidane meant for the French national team.
When he and Lillian Thuram exited retirement to turn France's fortunes, proving that there is some genius in Domenech's call-ups, the stage was already set for a rise from the ashes. Thuram gave steadiness to an uncertain defence and Zidane, in no simple terms, did the rest.
To watch France at the World Cup in 2006 is to see a team set up very similarly as it is now. A fairly stoic, unflashly, ridigly structured 4-2-3-1 (which Domenech only recently altered by necessity rather than by choice). Undoubtedly, Vieira, Makelele, Gallas, Henry and Ribery were all in and around their prime, but still the system remained the same. There was only one difference, and that difference, in particular, went on show for the world in France's 1-0 win over Brazil, as Zidane patiently picked and guiled his way through the entire Brazil lineup, much like he did in 1998.
Saying that a team is worse off without Zidane is akin to saying that the 1986 Argentina squad wouldn't have won the world cup without Maradona, or Brazil in 1962 without Garrincha. It's pretty obviously so. But what is so interesting about France without Zidane (or, as it would be, very uninteresting) is just how desperately France need a player with creativity.
Domenech's system was overidden by Zidane's guile and wizardry. His skills surpassed any rigid formulations and brought to fruition the patterns and movement that the squad without him so clearly lacked. He saw runs, he made the killer pass, and when the team needed it, he scored goals. In retrospect it's easy to see just how average the squad as a whole performed, but how they got their groove back once they had a certain bald-headed conducter.
Samir Nasri, as a young, cherub-like boy playing beach football in Marseille, when asked if he would like to be like Zidane said "I'll never be like him. He's the best". Asked years later about the interview, Nasri reasoned about his response and said that it came from the "heavy" legacy of trying to live up to Zidane.
Regarding another inconic playmaker, Zidane once said that, as a boy, he always played as Michel Platini. All of his other friends could choose whom they liked, but he was Platini.
It's no coincidence that France, often having talented squads (something which has only grown along with the Arab and African immigrant population), has lacked that final spark without a playmaker. In a way, having Platini and Zidane is the greatest pair of gifts as well as curses. With them, France have lifted two European Championships, finished third at the '86 World CUp, reached the final in '06 (losing because of Zidane's head), and finally won the trophy on home soil in '98 (victorious because of Zidane's head).
Without them, France are a tale of shambolic failings and attaining far less than the sum of their parts. They slumped to a horrific group exit at the 2002 World Cup with Zidane limping around the field following a long series of injuries. Without him at all the team collapsed at Euro 2008.
Following Platini's playing retirement he ironically failed them as a manager, failing to get the sqaud to the 1990 World Cup, and crashing out at the 1992 Euro group stages. The nadir of all this came entirely without either Platini or Zidane's invovlement. With two games to go, France collapsed at the final hurdle, losing both their games and failing to qualify. Ironically, this brought about France's most successful period, as the appointment of Aime Jacquet finally brought France World Cup glory.