France’s journey to the 2006 World Cup final was one of the last great stories of the competition. A bizarrely quixotic campaign had its origins in the return of three veterans, who came to their country’s rescue just as qualification was faltering in the winter of 2005.  Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makélélé and Lilian Thuram were all tempted out of retirement to help guide their team to the finals in Germany, and duly managed to galvanise a unit of veterans and newcomers in the process.

Once at the tournament proper, a diffident, sluggish start in the group matches gave way to a series of expressive displays in the knockout stages. The ending was somehow fittingly extraordinary, with the collision of Zidane’s forehead and Marco Materazzi’s sternum usurping Fabio Cannavaro’s trophy lift as the signal image of the tournament. France’s number 10 might not have been at the tournament at all, however, had he not received a call in the night months earlier.

After an indifferent Euro 2004 saw France knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual champions Greece, Zidane, Makélélé and Thuram announced their retirements from the international stage some time later. Along with the other veteran, Marcel Desailly, the group had grown weary of the top level game and the national team’s demands.

Zidane had even considered retirement after Japan and Korea 2002, as the atmosphere within the unit was increasingly fractious. As the man himself put it: “Something was broken after the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 was the last straw.” Once the European crown was surrendered in Portugal two years after the tepid defence of the World Cup, the squad was shorn of several more members of the world champions of 1998. 

Jacques Santini, the national team coach during Euro 2004, also departed, replaced by the idiosyncratic Raymond Domenech. Although Domenech’s rebuilding process would have seemed formidable without Zidane, Desailly, Thuram, Lizarazu and Makélélé, a 2006 World Cup qualifying group containing Israel, Switzerland, Faroe Islands, Cyprus and Ireland looked surmountable. After four draws and home wins against the Faroes and Cyprus, France’s qualification looked anything but certain though.

Against the backdrop of an indifferent rebuilding phase and the accumulation of just 10 points from their six games, first Zidane, then Makélélé and then Thuram announced that they would return for the remaining qualifiers. The man from Marseille’s return was contingent on the return of the other two; thus were the origins of yet more politicking in the French camp.

Zidane somewhat mystically explained his return, saying: “What happened was a bit mystic, irrational even,” before adding, “It was a real person, but it all seemed so distant. I had something akin to a revelation, I had this sudden desire to go back to my roots.” It later transpired that Zizou’s real interlocutor was, in fact, his brother, who he had called at 3am. 

Read  |  The story of France’s failure at World Cup 2002

Claude Makélélé followed his former Real Madrid colleague back into the national team, following months of discussion between the two, while Lilian Thuram explained his return in different terms: “Domenech called me up, so I have to go. It’s my duty.” 

Despite boasting a combined age of 98, the return of the trio seemed to instantly release France from their inertia. As Thierry Henry noted of Zidane: “What I am going to say may sound over the top, but it’s the truth. God exists and he has returned to the France team.” Stand-in goalkeeper Grégory Coupet summed up matters in more down to earth terms when he observed: “Without them last year we were in trouble. You could see in some players’ eyes they didn’t know who to pass to.”

Zidane’s return began with a 3-0 home win against the Faroe Islands. Four days later, Patrick Vieira, Willy Sagnol and Ludovic Giuly – who had missed the home tie with the Irish in Dublin – returned for the crucial fixture with Brian Kerr’s men in Saint-Denis, where Domenech’s team suddenly had much more heft. 

On the night, a 68th-minute winner from Henry duly gave France the three points and more breathing space. Ultimately, the reconstructed France won three and drew the other of their remaining four games, ensuring qualification for Germany by topping the group with 20 points, ahead of Switzerland with 18.

Despite the relief of qualification, this was not an outfit that travelled across the border into Germany with any great expectations of success among the home press. As French writer Xavier Rivoire put it: They won’t do any better than quarter-finals. The team is too old, young players like Franck Ribéry cannot break into the squad. Germany will be the twilight for the dinosaurs of the golden generation.”

Although several of the veterans of the 1998 campaign had indeed been put out to grass, seven members of the 23 man squad were over the age of 30. Zidane would turn 34 on the same day that Vieira reached 30, while Fabien Barthez would be 35 five days later. Thuram nudged 34, while Coupet, Sylvain Wiltord, Makélélé and Vikash Dhorasoo were also in their fourth decade.   

Like the qualification campaign which had preceded it, the French were eventually drawn in a tournament group which seemed, on paper at least, easily navigable. They would need to renew hostilities with Alpine neighbours Switzerland, take on South Korea and finish off the group stage with an encounter with Togo.  A combination of leaden-footedness and slow build up play only served to remind those watching with the shambolic campaign in the far east four earlier.   

After draws with Switzerland and an energetic South Korea, qualification for the last 16 came down to the final game with Togo. Zidane, the skipper, had picked up two yellow cards already, thus ensuring his suspension. In his place, Vieira would assume the armband on the occasion of his 30th birthday. On a muggy evening in Cologne, France ensured the runners-up spot in Group G and followed the Swiss into the knockout stages. Vieira opened the scoring, while his former Arsenal teammate Henry struck the winner. They might have huffed and puffed but France were through to the last 16 for a much-anticipated clash with Spain.    

Read  |  Why Thierry Henry is the striking blueprint

Tactical differences between the manager, the captain and his senior coterie were beginning to surface, though. For now, however, player power and the galvanic presence of Zidane, Thuram, Vieira and Henry were forces for good. We were too hesitant, we need to let go,” said Domenech after the South Korea game. “We need to throw off the shackles.”

Zidane had let it know that he favoured David Trezeguet to partner Henry up front, rather than have the Barcelona striker as solitary frontman. Domenech, it turned out, was not in accord with his captain: “Zidane’s definition of a striker is perhaps different to mine,” the manager remarked. “To me, anyone who finds themselves in the penalty area is an attacker. Anything is possible. Systems are less important than players.”

And so the knockout stage encounters began. Domenech had expected to meet Spain, albeit with France having won their group with Spain finishing runners-up in theirs. As it happened, the reverse turned out to be the case, as a youthful Spanish side topped Group H after three straight wins.

On another hot night, this time in Hanover, France emerged from the tunnel in the change strip of all white. In front of 43,000 fans, La Marseillaise was roundly booed, jeered and whistled. As the grand old anthem of revolution came to an end, the camera panned to the face of the French captain. He looked down the line at his teammates with an expression which seemed to signify that this was the moment their campaign was to start. 

After an initially cagey beginning, Thuram tripped David Villa in the box. In the 28th-minute, Villa stroked home the resulting penalty. Getting into their stride, France pushed on and, five minutes before the end of the half, Vieira exquisitely weighted his pass to break Spain’s offside trap. Ribéry, the man Xavier Rivoire said would not even get a start, poked home the equaliser.

In the second half, a similar pattern continued and, as extra time seemed to look a possibility, Vieira bundled in the second for France.  The best was yet to come, though. Two minutes into time added on, Zidane rounded one defender, then another and then wrong-footed Iker Casillas as he thrashed home the ball to his far right.

Domenech’s men were suddenly released. The resulting 3-1 victory put France through to a quarter-final with Brazil, to be played on the Saturday evening in Frankfurt. It seemed that not everyone was happy, though.

Read  |  Lilian Thuram: the legend who came from nothing

Two nights after the victory, an old foe spoke his piece. Just as the host nation was seeking to use the World Cup as a platform to banish memories of a dark past and expunge the spectre of fascism, so France’s 23 men squad seemed, in its way, to point to a newly transformed, harmonious Europe. As 16 of the 23 man squad were non-white, Jean-Marie Le Pen was not ready to join in the party and celebrate his nation’s victory.

As Le Pen claimed that the make-up of the national side was “artificial”, he elaborated by stating that France cannot recognise itself in the national side, maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of colour and should have been a bit more careful”. However, united and fortified by victory over Spain, the squad seemed less rattled than would have been expected. 

As usual in these matters, their de facto spokesman came in the form of the erudite, thoughtful Thuram, the famous son of Guadeloupe, whose riposte stunned the assembled press and, no doubt, the veteran National Front leader himself: “What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen? Clearly he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn’t know anything about French history or society.

“That’s pretty serious. He’s the type of person who’d turn on the television and see the American basketball team and wonder, ‘Hold on, there are black people playing for America? What’s going on?’

“When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn’t matter if we’re black or not, because we’re French. I’ve just got one thing to say to Jean-Marie Le Pen: the French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants.”

With Le Pen put in his place for the time being, Zidane, Thuram, Barthez, Henry, Makélélé and the rest of the group focused on the stellar quarter-final tie with Brazil. So galvanic was the victory over Spain that a relatively early last-eight duel with the reigning champions did not seem to give the French any undue jitters. Makélélé perhaps best typified the spirit when he said: “Brazil or not … I don’t give a fuck.” 

France, then, were ready. What followed was the tie of the round, and quite possibly of the finals, as Zidane rolled back the clock for what at times looked like an exhibition match.

The roulette, together with the full box of Zidane trickery, was in evidence in Frankfurt. With France again in the change strip of all white, the game was settled in the 57th minute when a lofted free-kick from Zidane zoomed in from close to the left touchline. An unmarked Henry ghosted to the edge of the right of the six-yard box and volleyed home. What had seemed improbable a matter of two weeks earlier had happened: France had reached the semi-final and defied their critics’ expectations.

Read  |  L’Étranger: Vikash Dhorasoo and the struggle for love

The team – a mixture of the tried (and maybe tired) and tested and newcomers – had meshed against expectations. Ribéry had been energetic and enterprising, while Éric Abidal and Wily Sagnol had shored up a defence alongside Thuram and William Gallas. Vieira, not feeling “cooked” as he claimed to be in Korea four years previously, looked at his strong arm best in midfield alongside Makélélé. Another newcomer, Florent Malouda, settled quickly and became an ever present, while Zidane was simply Zidane once more. 

The team was still not pleasing its old nemesis Le Pen, though, who singled out Barthez for his failure to sing the national anthem. The notion that the pre-match ritual should be a vocal chord shredding, lung-busting, group-huddling ode to the state is a relatively new phenomenon. England’s heroes of ’66 observed God Save the Queen in dignified silence, while the Dutch Total Footballers of 1974 were a study in nonchalant indifference as Het Wilhelmus preceded each of their encounters. 

The Dutch opposition in the 1974 final, West Germany, were another example of a group who seemed happiest in observing the ritual, rather than elevating it to performance art. Just three examples, of course, although this kind of observance typified European teams of the era.

With the modern camera pointed squarely at the nostrils during the pre-match anthem, the temptation for a player to pledge his fealty in this way must be considerable. In contrast to his views on Barthez, if Le Pen had an opinion on Thuram’s rendition of La Marseillaise, sung with enough gusto and passion to match Stuart Pearce’s version of God Save the Queen, this it is not known.

France achieved their dream of appearing in the World Cup final by beating Portugal courtesy of a 33rd minute  Zidane penalty in Munich’s semi-final on 5 July. After Italy had shown too much staying power for the young German side the previous evening, Berlin’s showpiece final would feature the three times winners against a side in France that had been thought too old and too disjointed to reach such a stage.

In Berlin’s cavernous Olympiastadion, both sides scored within the opening 20 minutes, after Marco Materazzi’s header cancelled out Zidane’s audacious Panenka-style penalty in the seventh minute. Zidane’s mood in attempting the chipped spot-kick can only be guessed at, although it probably hints at an elevated state of occasion, even for such a garlanded player in his final game. This after all, would be his swansong, having announced that his leave of football would follow the final.  

After he had missed a chance to seal the match with a header late on, the game drifted into extra time, when Zidane’s football career reached a shockingly abrupt end. So many words and explanations have been offered already as to the provocation from Materazzi which led to Zidane’s retaliation against him, that to add more seems pointless. 

Read  |  Zinedine Zidane and the making of a king

After 110 minutes of play, Zidane was shown a red card by referee Horacio Elizondo, after fourth official Luis Medina Cantalejo had relayed confirmed of the headbutt through his headset. La Castellane’s most famous son could hardly have chosen a more iconic moment for the 14th dismissal of his career. As he trudged off down the tunnel, the glittering trophy was on its mount as he walked by. A more tantalising image of what might have been could hardly exist.

For Italy, Fabio Grosso’s fifth penalty in the shoot-out was the winner, giving Italy the crown and a fourth world title, a record for a European nation. Earlier, Trezeguet had missed his spot kick, demonstrating football’s ability to come back to bite its protagonists. Trezeguet, after all, had scored the Golden Goal winner against Italy in the European final in Rotterdam six years earlier. France’s only consolation – not that it felt like much of one at the time – was Zidane receiving the FIFA award for tournament best player.

The next day a jaded French squad stood on the balcony of the Élysée Palace, besuited and with ties loosely worn. The president of the republic, Jacques Chirac, paid his tribute to Zidane by saying: “Dear Zinedine Zidane, what I want to express to you at this perhaps most intense and difficult time in your career, is the admiration and the affection of the whole nation – its respect too. You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football. You are also a man of the heart, of commitment, of conviction, and that’s why France admires and loves you.”

Not everyone was as forgiving as Chirac, though. The morning after the final, the French sporting daily L’Equipe blasted “The hardest thing is not to try to understand why Les Bleus lost a World Cup final match that was within reach, but to explain to tens of millions of children around the world how you allowed yourself to headbutt Marco Materazzi.”

Reaching the final had been a redemption of sorts, particularly in light of the exhaustion which had stalked the team in Asia four years earlier. In 2006 France overcame the age and weariness of their veterans to come within touching distance of regaining their world crown. Adorned in white, they lit up the tournament with two of its finest displays: the last 16 encounter with Spain and the glorious Saturday evening quarter-final with Brazil. In doing so, they embraced player power for the good. Age and weariness were converted to guile and experience for the knockout stages as the team came so close but so far. The seeds of the eventual downfall of the team and its coach were sewn in Germany, however.

As a coterie of experienced campaigners managed to unify and discipline the squad in Germany, they also helped to offset the eccentricities of their boss, Raymond Domenech, whose methods did not win popular approval. Prior to the return of Zidane, Makélélé and Thuram, the manager had insisted on players performing Maoist self-criticisms in the dressing room after games.

When Barthez reputedly refused to do his at 2:30am following the previous evening’s qualifier, it was evidence that the management of the squad bordered on the farcical. The boss’s reputed use of astrology to assist him in team composition – whether apocryphal or not – was another source of contention and ridicule. He had famously raised eyebrows – and titters –  before the Euro 2004 clash with England when he remarked: “When I have got a Leo in defence, I’ve always got my gun ready, as I know he’s going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us.”

The French had got away with it in 2006, as unity was achieved in extraordinary circumstances. Four years later, amid the cold and the vuvuzelas in South Africa, it all went horribly wrong, as the accord between players and coach was irretrievably broken to the shame of a nation. A squad shorn of the calming and disciplined presence of its veterans descended into outright mutiny and the biggest scandal to have engulfed French football 

By Gareth Bland    @peakdistrictman