By Christian Châtelet in Paris
The dreams of many French football supporters come true on Wednesday night as Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram resume their international careers in a friendly against the Ivory Coast at Montpellier Hérault SC's La Mosson stadium. Nearly a year after all three retired from service with Les Bleus, they report for duty with a view to helping Raymond Domenech's side reach the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals.
France have seen players make dramatic comebacks before. Jean Tigana and Patrick Battiston did so in the late 1980s to help coach, friend and former team-mate Michel Platini, but the reinstatement of such an illustrious trio is unprecedented.
Real Madrid CF star Zidane, his country's most supreme talent since Platini, had previously seemed unwilling to renege on the decision he took on 12 August 2004. "I know it's strange and some will ask: 'Why did he leave?'," said Zidane, who famously went to a Madonna concert instead of watching France's 1-1 draw in Israel. "At that time I was sure I would not come back. Just as I'm sure today [that the time is right to return]."
A sense of disbelief still hangs over France following Zidane's announcement. The 33-year-old's close pal Christophe Dugarry spoke for many upon hearing the news of the playmaker's decision, saying: "I won't believe it until I see him on the pitch."
Zidane's wife Véronique and oldest son Enzo had reportedly never wanted him to quit the national team, but few expected the man regularly voted as the most popular Frenchman by Journal du Dimanche to have a change of heart - especially having claimed that "something was broken" in the France side.
None the less, after a late-night conversation with one of his three brothers, Zidane decided the time had come to return. Many have suggested that Aimé Jacquet, the coach who led France to the 1998 FIFA World Cup, may have played a part in persuading him.
The French Football Federation technical director was never happy with Zidane's retreat from the international stage, and he allegedly asked Domenech to urge Makelele and the 103-times capped Thuram to reconsider too. The latter pair reported that they had several meetings with the coach recently, and once Zidane decided to return, Chelsea FC midfielder Makelele quickly followed suit.
Juventus FC defender Thuram proved a harder nut to crack. "When the team said that they had called me up, I was a bit angry," he said. "Very angry in fact. I thought I had made myself clear to the national team coach. But I cannot imagine ever refusing a call-up."
It will do Zidane, Thuram and Makelele's reputations no harm that they heeded the call in France's hour of need. With Domenech's 'Nouveaux Bleus' struggling in World Cup qualifying Group 4, they will take enormous strength from the trio's restoration for the vital ties against the Republic of Ireland on 7 September and Switzerland on 12 October.
All three remain in peak condition and have priceless experience of top-level football. Moreover, with Zidane they have perhaps the ultimate modern French icon: the son of Algerian immigrants, Zidane is a model of social integration and the new France.
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