The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Marseille waits for prodigal son

Marseille: Marseille have slim hopes of reaching the next phase of the Champions League but their big match against Real Madrid next week will still be a celebration as the city’s favourite son will be back in town.

Zinedine Zidane was born in the big Mediterranean port 31 years ago and has become an icon for a city with a huge community of northern African extraction.

But while other famous sons of the city, such as Eric Cantona, Jean Tigana and Frank Leboeuf, have played for Olympique Marseille, the best player raised in the city never did and probably never will.

Marseille fans have not had a chance to see Zidane play a competitive game at the Stade Velodrome since an international against Norway shortly before the 1998 World Cup.

Now Zizou is back in person in a town which, since the 1998 World Cup, has had to be content with a huge picture of their prodigal son painted on the back of a restaurant on the seafront.

The picture became a town symbol and a site photographed by tourists almost as often as the church overlooking the city.

“We’re very proud of him, proud that he is from Marseille. The Good Mother was especially good to us when she gave us Zizou,” said Serge Botey, the deputy mayor in charge of the town’s image at the city council.

But Botey said local pride would be dampened next Wednesday, when 60,000 fans will gather at the Velodrome for the match against Real, as Zidane would be playing for the wrong side.

“I talked to the fans and they don’t care about Zizou as long as he is playing against us,” Botey said. But will Zidane actually do his best for Real'

The 1998 Footballer of the Year spurred a mini-controversy last month when he hinted he might “take it easy” against Marseille if it could help his hometown team to qualify.

“I am and I will always remain a Marseille fan and I wish for Marseille to make it through to the next round,” he said.

Unfortunately for Zizou, that is very unlikely to happen. And unfortunately for other Marseille fans, it is very unlikely that the best French player of his generation, born in the poor suburb of La Castellane, will ever play for the club he supports.

Olympique Marseille president Christophe Bouchet was realistic about Zidane’s intentions to take it easy.

“It was just the heart speaking, a declaration of love. I cannot see Zidane relax or pull out after the kick-off. It’s not his style,” he said.

“We’re delighted to see him back even if Real without him would have been enough to have a full stadium,” Bouchet said.

“Zidane’s homecoming is like a family reunion between relatives who don’t see each other often. The atmosphere will be special because we don’t meet up every Sunday.”

Bouchet might dream of one day signing Zidane but the player himself says it is no more than a fantasy.

“I’m under enormous pressure in a town like Madrid. So can you imagine what it would be like in Marseille'” he said.

“Family and friends and all that, I know so many people in Marseille that I cannot see myself playing for OM.”

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