The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Arm’s length away from a sad end

Leipzig, June 19: Trudging off the field after being replaced when the game had slipped out of French hands, Zinedine Zidane threw the blue captain’s armband towards Franck Ribery yesterday.

It was a gesture (in Reuters picture above) that might haunt the soccer artist for the rest of his life. And cause pain to his admirers who fear he might have tossed away his international career itself.

France will play its last game against Togo, but without Zidane who collected a yellow card yesterday after a frustrated shove to a South Korean, having lost the 1-0 lead.

His team can still snatch a place in the round of 16 by beating Togo on Friday and Zidane may still play in this World Cup. But his presence will possibly only heighten his fans’ sadness.

Against South Korea, Zidane was often an embarrassment ' there was that occasion, though, when the old vision flitted by in the form of a pass to Thierry Henry who couldn’t slide the ball past the Korean keeper.

Most of the rest was percentage play. The brilliant, telling pass that opened up the play in ways few others saw or even knew was there is no more.

When Raymond Domenech, the coach, replaced him in the 90th minute it was too late. Zidane was already destroyed.

It has happened to other great players before him and will happen to many after him. Diego Maradona departed in shame from the 1994 World Cup amid a drug scandal. Possibly just as well because his continued presence on the pitch might have brought even bigger shame.

Remember Zico' And Socrates' Members of the 1982 Brazil team that lost to Italy but never lost the romanticism which grew around it. In 1986, Zico and Socrates continued to be in the team ' past their sell-by date ' and Brazil collapsed, running out of breath as the quarter-final against France went into extra time.

Michel Platini, the benchmark for French footballing talent, had played in that quarter-final, shooting embarrassingly over the bar in the penalties. France still won, because Socrates also missed.

Platini’s team could not make it to the final, either in 1982 or 1986, when his and his colleague’s powers were fading, much like the current French squad’s.

Still, Platini retains his aura. There’s something to be said for the attraction of tragic talents in football. Brazil and France of 1982, Johan Cryuff’s Holland of 1974 ' they never won and are still loved more than many winners.

It would be nice to make Zidane a member of that club. But Zidane won the World Cup in 1998. In 2002, at the age of 29, he was barely noticed as France exited in the first round.

Many moons later, he came out of retirement for this tournament. Zidane has played his last club match for Real Madrid. If Leipzig, against South Korea, is the last we see of him, something will rankle. This is not how great players should leave the stage.

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