This follows Zidane’s dramatic announcement last Wednesday to return to the struggling French World Cup squad. He’ll don the blue of France for the first time in over a year when the former world champions meet Ivory Coast in a friendly match in Montpellier next Wednesday (Aug. 17).
Les Bleus were further boosted last week by news that vaunted Chelsea linkman Claude Makelele and experienced Juventus defender Lilian Thuram were also following Zidane out of retirement. The trio quit the national side after France’s failure to defend the European title in Portugal last summer.
Together with speedy forward Djbril Cisse’s return to form for Liverpool, these developments heighten the stakes for Ireland ahead of the massive World Cup qualifier with the French at Lansdowne Road in four weeks time.
The Republic tops Group 4 with 13 points, one ahead of Switzerland, with Israel and France two and three points adrift, respectively. However, the Swiss and French both have a game in hand, which they’ll make up on September 3: the latter against the Faroe Islands and the former at home to Israel.
France’s anticipated victory in Lens should see them arrive in Dublin level on points with Ireland and with the group leadership quite likely on the line — scenarios in which the gifted Zidane usually excels.
A three-time World Player of the Year with 93 caps, Zidane captained France to World Cup glory in 1998, netting a brace in the 3-0 romp over Brazil in the final. Two years later, he led his country to the European championship in Holland. Although now 33, the midfield genius remains at the top of his game with Real Madrid.
“France have given me so much that I want to help them,” he said last week. “Last year, I had lost my motivation on the pitch.”
Zidane all but guaranteed that France would qualify for the World Cup.
“We need to be positive, we have to be convinced France will qualify. I am convinced we will qualify,” he said.
Zidane’s international comeback was cheered by the French media, who hailed him as “The Savior” and “Zinedine Zorro.”
For French coach Raymond Domenech, the return of Zidane, Makelele and Thuram, a 33-year-old with 103 caps, after a disappointing campaign thus far is akin to the arrival of the calvary.
“I had respected their decision to stop playing for France but I also said I regretted it. It’s great to have those hugely talented players back,” said Domenech.
Meanwhile, Roy Keane was left out of a 23-man Irish squad called up by manager Brian Kerr on Monday for the Lansdowne friendly with Italy next Wednesday.
Defenders Steve Finnan, Gary Breen and Richard Dunne, return after missing recent World Cup qualifiers against Israel and Faroe Islands, although Dunne was just last week reportedly sidelined by Manchester City because of a foot injury.
Also back to face the Azzurri are forward Robbie Keane, who had a stint with Inter Milan, and Andy O’Brien. The two missed the Faroe Islands game through injury and suspension respectively.
“This game, against one of the aristocrats of international football, will provide ideal preparation for the important World Cup Qualifiers against France, Cyprus and Switzerland over the next two months,” Kerr said on the FAI web site.
The full squad, whose composition could change after this weekend’s opening round of matches in the English Premiership League, is:
Goalkeepers: Shay Given (Newcastle United), Paddy Kenny (Sheffield United) and Nick Colgan (Barnsley).
Defenders: Kenny Cunningham (Birmingham City), Breen (Sunderland), O’Brien (Portsmouth), John O’Shea (Manchester United), Stephen Carr (Newcastle United), Ian Harte (Levante), Finnan (Liverpool) and Dunne (Manchester City).
Steven Reid (Blackburn Rovers), Liam Miller (Manchester United), Matt Holland (Charlton Athletic), Graham Kavanagh (Wigan Athletic), Kevin Kilbane (Everton), Andy Reid (Tottenham Hotspur) and Alan Quinn (Sheffield United) are the midfielders; while Damien Duff (Chelsea), Gary Doherty (Norwich City), Stephen Elliott (Sunderland), Clinton Morrison (Birmingham City), and Keane (Tottenham Hotspur) are the forwards.