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Bitter-sweet affair

PARIS, May 13- Born to Algerian immigrants in Marseille, Zinedine Zidane would grow up to become the finest French player since Michel Platini and a reluctant poster boy for emerging 21st-century France.A breath-takingly graceful playmaker, he enjoyed success in France, Italy and Spain, but is best remembered for his performances at the two World Cups that bookended his career at the highest level — France 1998 and Germany 2006.

"Technically, I think he is the king of what’s fundamental in the game — control and passing," said Platini. "I don’t think anyone can match him when it comes to controlling or receiving the ball."

Zidane’s first World Cup in 1998 did not get off to the best start, as he was sent off for an ugly stamp in the hosts’ group-stage victory over Saudi Arabia, causing him to miss the last-16 game against Paraguay.

Aime Jacquet’s men won through in his absence, though, and after overcoming Italy on penalties and beating Croatia 2-1 in the last four, the hosts stood on the verge of the first World Cup triumph in their history.

Zidane had sparkled fitfully in the tournament but in the final against Brazil he came to life, ghosting into the penalty area to score a pair of first-half headers that set France on the way to a 3-0 success.

As rejoicing French fans poured onto Paris’s Champs-Elysees to celebrate, it was an image of Zidane’s face projected onto the Arc de Triomphe that beamed down at them. A national icon was born.

The Juventus midfielder was the undisputed star of the 2000 European Championship in Belgium and Holland, where his guile and intelligence laid the foundations for another famous French victory.

His star in the ascendant, he joined Real Madrid in a record-breaking 75-million-euro transfer and gave them the ninth European Cup in their history with a memorable left-foot volley against Bayer Leverkusen in May 2002.

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That year’s World Cup, however, was an unmitigated disaster for Zidane and for France.

A thigh injury kept him out of Les Bleus’ first two games, including a shock 1-0 defeat to Senegal, and his appearance in the third game could not prevent France sliding to a 2-0 defeat to Denmark that saw them exit the tournament without scoring a single goal.

He announced his retirement from international football in 2004 but with the 2006 World Cup approaching and France beset by poor form, Zidane heeded the call of Raymond Domenech to return to the fold.

France limped through a straightforward group in Germany but suddenly found their way against much-fancied Spain in the last 16, as Zidane capped a 3-1 win with a late run and precise finish.

The balding magician shone even more brightly in the quarter-final defeat of Brazil, embarrassing the Brazilian midfield with his immaculate close control and teeing up Thierry Henry for the winner, before dispatching the penalty that saw off Portugal in the semi-finals.

Zidane gave France an early lead against Italy in the final with a brave chipped penalty that hit the crossbar and bounced narrowly behind the line.

Italy equalised soon after though and in extra time came the moment that would define Zidane’s tournament.

With the game moving towards penalties, Zidane and Marco Materazzi were seen to exchange words on the edge of the Italy penalty area before Zidane plunged his head into the Italian’s chest in an act of shocking violence.

A red card duly followed, Zidane traipsed from the field past the trophy he had held aloft eight years earlier and Italy prevailed in the shootout.

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It was to be his last act on a football field.

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