Zidane set for 100th appearance

None | ByAssociated Press, Clairefontaine
May 27, 2006 11:32 AM IST

The French midfielder who retires after the World Cup, will become the fourth player to play 100 times for Les Bleus.

Zinedine Zidane has come a long way since Eric Cantona scolded him for missing a team meeting on his first call up to the France squad.

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Twelve years later, Zidane is preparing to captain France against Mexico on Saturday. He will make his 100th international appearance and last at the Stade de France.

"If I do get swamped by emotion then so be it," Zidane said on Friday.

"I will try not to put pressure on myself. But if I do get emotional, then it's no drama. I've always had a good relationship with the fans at Stade de France."

Midfielder Zidane will become the fourth player to play 100 times for Les Bleus, following fellow World Cup winners Didier Deschamps, Lilian Thuram and record 116-game Marcel Desailly.

It's a far cry from his first tentative steps in the French camp. Called up as a late replacement for the injured Youri Djorkaeff, the shy Zidane kept his distance from the likes of the imposing Cantona - who was well on the way to becoming a Manchester United legend.

"We had a team meeting," Zidane said. "I stayed in my room as I thought I had no business to be there. Then I got a phone call and it was Cantona. He shouted down the phone, 'Hey, kid, where are you?' I literally ran down the stairs."

Cantona's blast seemed to work. Zidane came off the bench to score two goals and earn a 2-2 home draw against the Czech Republic. The Stade de France has held cherished memories for Zidane over the last eight years.

Zidane scored in the opening game at the national stadium - a 1-0 win over Spain in January 1998 - and six months later, he headed two goals in France's 3-0 victory over Brazil in the World Cup final.

"It's proof that he's had an exceptional career," said Juventus defender Thuram, who could make his 112th appearance on Saturday. "He has managed to stay at the top level for so long. Given the position that he plays in, it's more of an achievement than for me playing in defence."

Saturday will mark Zidane's fourth appearance at Stade de France in the past two years. He scored in a 1-0 win friendly win against Ukraine in June 2004, before France headed to the European Championship in Portugal.

France was eliminated by Greece in the quarterfinals, and Zidane retired from international soccer.

"I look back at video tapes of Euro 2004 and I looked out of position," Zidane said. "The team was strong, but we lacked freshness. We need to avoid the mistakes of the past."

He came back for the team's final four World Cup qualifiers and scored and assisted in a 4-0 qualifying win over Cyprus in October.

He took the field in a 2-1 friendly loss to Slovakia in March - France's only defeat in 18 matches under coach Raymond Domenech. Zidane has played 26 matches at Stade de France, scoring 11 of his 28 international goals in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis and losing only twice.

"Technically, he has a massive impact on our game," Domenech said. "Everything goes through him."

Zidane, 33, is unlikely to play more than a half game on Saturday, with Domenech eager not to overplay him prior to France's opening World Cup match against Switzerland on June 13.

"On the one hand, there is a World Cup to prepare, on the other you have Zidane and Tutu (Thuram) playing at the Stade de France for the last time," Domenech said. "We will see if we can integrate these two factors."

For French fans, it will be a final chance to see Zidane in the arena where he inspired France to its greatest sporting success.

"I had never even met Zidane before," said France defender Pascal Chimbonda, a surprise call up to Domenech's World Cup squad. "Just to be around him is amazing."

After Saturday, Zidane will have a maximum of nine games left in the blue jersey. That's if he plays the two ensuing warmup games - against Denmark in Lens on May 31, and China in Saint-Etienne on June 7 - and if France reaches the July 9 final in Germany.

After the World Cup, Zidane will retire from soccer altogether, 17 years after making his debut for Cannes.

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