Zidane poised for the ultimate farewell

July 8, 2006

BERLIN, July 8 (Reuters) - Football's greatest artist bowing out by playing a World Cup final seems too wonderful to be true but Zinedine Zidane has set the scene for the perfect final curtain on Sunday.

Zidane will lead France into the title match against Italy in Berlin, the last game of a glittering career for club and country.

'He is one of the players who is worth the price of the ticket to see,' Italy midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, as scruffy as Zidane is elegant, said of the player he will try to stop from shining on the pitch of the Olympic stadium.

When the midfield maestro announced in April that he would retire after the finals, France coach Raymond Domenech said Zidane's finest hour may still come.

Few suggested then, however, that the man who scored two headed goals when les Bleus stunned Brazil 3-0 to lift the most coveted of all trophies for the first time in 1998, would sign off by playing a second World Cup final.

France had struggled to qualify and Zidane, who came out of international retirement last year to help France win a ticket to Germany, had looked rusty for months in sluggish performances for Real Madrid.

The gifted son of Algerian immigrants was past his prime, it seemed, and his first matches in the tournament confirmed the impression.

Two anonymous performances and as many yellow cards in two dismal draws meant he was suspended when France played Togo in their Group G decider.

Had France failed to reach the knockout stage, Zidane, who watched that match from the dressing room on his 34th birthday, would have left by the back door.

Instead France beat Togo 2-0 and the man his fans call Zizou returned for a second-round match against Spain, orchestrating play with calm authority and scoring a superb goal in added time in a 3-1 win that was the turning point in France's campaign.

'Retirement? I'm sorry to have to tell them (the Spaniards) that it won't be after this match,' Zidane said then. 'The adventure continues.'

Then came Brazil in a rematch of the 1998 final and Zidane was pure magic in a 1-0 win, rolling back the years and pulling out all his old tricks in one of the most magnificent displays of his entire career.

'Watching Zizou play must make others feel they should stop,' France midfielder Patrick Vieira said after that match.

'It also makes you wish he would carry on.'

Another age-defying performance in a 1-0 semi-final victory over Portugal in which he drove home the winning penalty followed, Zidane's 30th goal in his 107th appearance for France setting the stage for the ultimate farewell party.

'He means so much to the French people,' Domenech said of his captain in the build-up to the final curtain.

'He gives them something to cheer and he has done that now for 10 years. And we hope there is another day to come on Sunday.'