In France, football miracles have one name: Zinedine Zidane. After a year of disappointing results, Zidane was back for France on Wednesday and suddenly Les Bleus rediscovered their confident swagger of old.
Ivory Coast were brushed aside 3-0 and Zizou was back amongst the goals. France's stuttering FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign has been given a timely boost and fans are ready to believe again.
'I felt emotional'
Within 24 hours of announcing his return on 3 August, the Mosson stadium in Montpellier sold out. On Wednesday 36,000 screamed "Zizou, Zizou!" as he stepped on to the pitch to warm up 45 minutes before kick-off. "I tried not to show it, but I felt emotional," Zidane admitted. "I remembered my first cap. It was exactly eleven years ago. It was good. Then I got into the game."
On 17 August 1994, Zidane was brought on in the second half and scored twice as Les Bleus came from behind to draw 2-2 with the Czech Republic. It seems a long time ago. That young and hard-working midfielder, then with a full head of hair, sparkled with FC Girondins de Bordeaux, before going on to earn a place alongside Michel Platini as the greatest of French footballers.
'Insisted on pleasure'
"In my team talk, I insisted on pleasure," captain Zidane said after Wednesday's victory, for which Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele also came out of international retirement. "Everybody knew their role. I just insisted on playing as a team." They did just that. Zidane worked his magic once again and the stability and confidence so clearly lacking throughout the Raymond Domenech era came flooding back.
"They all produced their best game since I have been in charge," Domenech said. "Not only Zidane, not only Thuram, not only Makelele. I saw a genuine team who applied what we decided in training and what we said before the game."
That bodes well for the remainder of France's qualifying campaign - if this momentum can be sustained. But it might be asking a lot from the miracle worker; after all, the well of inspiration ran dry at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and again at UEFA EURO 2004™.
But the eleven million French men and women who watched the game believe Zidane will turn the tide. France had not won a game by three clear goals since 28 May 2004. Memories have been rekindled of the EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign when Zidane’s exacting standards inspired a winning march through to Portugal.
Now unbeaten Group 4 rivals Israel, Republic of Ireland and Switzerland stand in France's way en route to Germany and all have proved Les Bleus' equals so far. Can Zidane make the difference, starting in Dublin on 7 September? Domenech's famous youth policy may not yet have paid off, but he believes the power of positive thinking will. "Now the strongest in their head will go through," the coach said.
But Ireland won't be as generous in defence as Ivory Coast. Roy Keane won't give Zidane an easy ride at Lansdowne Road. Switzerland aren't overly concerned either. "With or without Zidane, it's the same for us," Swiss striker Alexander Frei said. "To defeat them we're ready to fight hard."
Wednesday's party over, Domenech knows the hard work lies ahead. "We must not lapse into euphoric feelings," the coach said. "They were on top at the end of the game and they could have scored several times."
Zidane should be in better shape to face the Irish in three weeks time following the resumption of the Spanish league season. He found his stride against Ivory Coast but should improve. And after such a performance there is no doubt he has renewed French hopes.
'The light is back'
That might not prove enough to right the wrongs of France's qualifying campaign, but it leaves Domenech's side in a far healthier position than before Zidane announced his return. L'Equipe's banner headline on Wednesday proclaimed: "The light is back." But only another strong performance in Ireland from Zizou et al will tell if the dark days really have been banished.
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