Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Il faut oublier, tout peut s'oublier..."

The last – and indeed, first – time I visited Stuttgart was in February 1995, as a 16-year-old preparing for imminent German A-levels on a hurriedly-organised Sixth Form “field trip” – though somehow, a few friends not taking German managed to inveigle their way along as well.

When we weren’t dancing ironically to Whigfield on a nightclub dancefloor the size of, ooh maybe, four postage stamps, we were being taken on tours of such illuminating attractions as Stuttgart’s proud Mercedes factory (not interested in cars), a brandy distillery (couldn’t then hack the taste, and still can’t, or don’t want to) and a large lab specialising in certain obscure medicinal compounds (as intriguing as it sounds – or perhaps even less). In fact, perhaps the most memorable moment of these experiences was the end of the lab tour, when our unflaggingly-enthusiastic guide promised us a free lunch on the Pfizer-like company – but reminded us to “take your tablet on the way in”…

Cue: a moment of minor, “what-are-they-planning-to-do-to-us?” panic.
Before, simultaneously, us A-level students remembered “Tablett” is German for “tray”. Phew.

So, as I suggested, fairly dull. The Spurs fans among us wanted to veer the tourbus towards the Stuttgart backerei where the Klinsmann family made (and still) make a living before young son Jurgen decided to further his football career in search of greater riches.
Well, his family did need the dough… (Sorry.)

At about the same time, a young French boy by the name of Zinedine Zidane was emerging through the Bordeaux football academy, to rave reviews from his coaches and peers.
He and bosom buddy Christophe Dugarry were offered a trial across the Channel at Spurs – only for then-manager Gerry Francis, so to the story goes, to reject Zidane as “too wooden”.

Of course, since then said Pinocchio has scored two goals in a winning World Cup final, scored one of the all-time great Champions League final goals to clinch that trophy, been named World Footballer Of The Year three times and generally become a football legend.

No, it wasn’t Gerry, who has since settled into retirement without clubs clamouring for his return, happy sidelines of antique dealing and pigeon-breeding, and the occasional head-twitching stint as a pundit on Sky Sports.

As for the Zidane-less Spurs…

I spent the night of the World Cup Final in 1998 on the streets of St Denis, a Fabien Barthez goal-kick from the Stade de France where Zizou scored those two thunderous headers in a 3-0 triumph over France. The sight and sound of thousands of delirious French fans spilling tumultuously from the square where we watched the final on a big screen, then dancing through the night and all down the Champs Elysees as the team paraded in triumph the next day… It was all glorious to behold, even with the disappointment lingering from England’s sad St Etienne departure a fortnight earlier.

Just as Zizou at his best has always been a delight to see (well, okay, maybe the appreciation was delayed the night two years ago when he turned England’s Euro 2004 scoreline from 1-0 to 1-2 in the final moments of the match).

But glimpses of him this past season have been sad and depressing, as the old master became simply old and past-it, Real Madrid’s matches passing by this greatest and most graceful of Galacticos – those training-ground performances against youthfully, upwardly-mobile A*senal especially.

Like a great old actor who won’t admit they can no longer remember their lines, a comic who’s lost his timing, a Rolling Stone still trying to pout and strut and corrupt the youth of today (not in a coolly rebellious way, but a seedy and sordid way)… Maybe it was just time to bow out in style. And soon.

But don’t bow out, only to return – surely that way only lies greater, shuddering embarrassment? Yet last year Zidane returned to the French fold, having previously declared the early exit from Euro 2004 was his sad adieu to internationals.

Yet tonight, for any trepidation surrounding Zidane’s World Cup 2006 arrival with France, against Stuttgart, he certainly didn’t hold up badly.

Okay, so he wasn’t grasping hold of the match at key moments with the cool dynamism of old. The probing passes of the first half became more sporadic in the second.

But, the 90 minutes were enough to suggest he still had sufficient of that old Zizou class still - he hadn’t declined so much after all.

Sadly for him, it seems the rest of the French team has.

This was dreary, oh so dreary. A goalless draw unhappily worthy of the name, unlike the Sweden-Trinidad and Tobago stalemate the other night which was – eventually – abrim with goalmouth action.

Perhaps tonight’s boredom was inevitably born of boredom. France and Switzerland met in the Euro 2004 group stage – and twice more, during qualifiers for this tournament.

But still… Why, when Zidane returned, did Lilian Thuram too? He was living – just about – on what remains of his wits tonight, but more often dependent on luck. When recklessly playing attackers onside, he was misplacing passes or trampling his way through clumsy fouls – sometimes spotted by the ref, sometimes not.

Patrick Vieira was even worse, miskicking away possession and dithering over perfectly-good shooting chances in a way which suggested this was an imposter, cloned from the former A*senal powerhouse but with a technical fault which left just the appearance, none of the talent.

These players are not only several years older than their glory years. They are also players who have achieved that glory in the first place – earned the right to be rightly acclaimed as legends – and, and, and… what now? Where’s the motivation to do more – beyond, well, inherent motivation itself?

Once, Vieira was an unstoppable force of inspiration – and woe betide anyone who even suggested thinking of trying to somehow stop him. Tonight he was being casually dispossessed and outpaced by Swiss veterans and callow kids with little to live up to – but at least putting in the effort and focus.

Yet the most baffling of French under-performers was that man, that magician, Thierry Henry. I heard someone say the other day that Henry had never scored for France from a Zidane assist, amazing and probably-inaccurate as that sounds. He certainly should have done tonight – at least three times, set free to run onto a delicate Zizou through-ball, only to send the ball once wide, twice into the grateful arms of Zubabuehler with all the pace and venom of a backpass.

Henry’s performances in the Champions League this season provided a great response to allegations of being merely a flat-track bully, a flashy striker who can score against Sunderland, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough at a canter, but freezes in the big matches.

Well, sure… But to be World Footballer Of The Year, or at least unofficial “greatest player on the planet today”, he surely can’t misfire at another major international tournament, can he? What’s going on?

Of course, there is plenty of time and action to go. And first matches aren’t the be-all and end-all upon which to base World Cup forecasts and verdicts – right, Sven?

But tonight… Well, the boos and whistles greeting especially-slow periods of play tonight, and the final whistle, were the first I’ve heard this tournament for anything other than perceived diving or a poor refereeing decision.

England-Paraguay finally has a rival for Worst Match Of The Tournament So Far. At least there was an exciting atmosphere in Frankfurt!

Still, what better panacea, then, than the long-awaited introduction to Weltmeisterschaft 2006, of those boys from Brazil.

Even better, I’ve managed to end this entry just in time to tune in!


Mike said...

For obvious reasons, France have been my second favourite (and sometimes favourite) team over the last ten years and it's sad to see them play so poorly.

It's a shame that Henry's peak has coincided with the rest of the team's decline. I don't think he played poorly last night, but he was left completely isolated by Dommench's strange tactics. He should be building the team around him, not the desperately past it Vieira and Zidane.

Lyndon said...

A-levels at 16? Genius-boy!

aside from that, yup, them Frenchies are rubbish.

Henry - where does he go in the big games?

Aidan said...

Sorry, I meant 17. One of the reasons I wasn't doing maths A-level at any age...

Should have mentioned it before - and just to prove, Mike, I don't see all football solely through Lilywhite-tinted glasses - my man of the match would have been Senderos, who was as immense as he needed to be for the Swiss.

Even if his face does look permanently confused by something or other.