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Chirac: France still loves Zidane

President Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette welcome Zinedine Zidane at the Elysee palace.



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Zinedine Zidane

PARIS, France -- French President Jacques Chirac has hailed Zinedine Zidane as a "virtuoso, a genius of world football" despite his sending off in the World Cup final for head-butting an Italian player.

Zidane, who was named on Monday by football's governing body as the outstanding player of the tournament, shocked France with his attack on Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the last minutes of Sunday's game.

He was sent off with a red card from the match that marked his retirement. France lost to Italy by 5-3 in a penalty shootout.

"You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football," Chirac said, according to The Associated Press. "You are also a man of heart, commitment, conviction. That's why France admires and loves you."

The president also thanked and consoled the French national team.

"France loves and admires you," he told players in a speech before receiving them and their wives for lunch. The team later paraded on the balcony of the palace, where they were cheered by fans.

Earlier Monday Zidane won FIFA's Golden Ball prize, which is decided by journalists at the tournament. Zidane received 2,012 votes, Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro finished second with 1,977 and his team mate Andrea Pirlo was third with 715.

Brazil and Spain shared the fair play award. (Full story)

But as France woke up with the bitter taste of defeat on Monday, the question on everyone's lips was: "Why did Zinedine Zidane do it?"

In his last game for his country after a glorious career, the outrageous assault by Zidane on defender Marco Materazzi ensured the midfield genius missed the penalty shoot-out that decided the game.

Italy held its nerve to run out 5-3 winners in the shoot-out after the score was tied at 1-1 at the end of extra time. Zidane had scored a seventh minute penalty to put France ahead in Sunday's final in Berlin with Materazzi equalizing 12 minutes later. (Match report)

"The blue angel turned into a devil," the daily newspaper Le Parisien said of France's favourite footballing icon, making a play on words on the national side's nickname -- "Les Bleus" -- which means "the blues" in French.

The paper nevertheless ran a "Thank You" headline on its front page in tribute to the achievement of the unfancied national side that reached its second final in eight years despite being largely written off as too old.

Liberation's frontpage saw the result as "Cruel" while the Le Figaro daily lamented the "Broken Dream of Les Bleus."

But the country's top sports paper, L'Equipe, roasted Zidane in an editorial by Claude Droussent, who said Zidane's "stupid" assault was hard to forgive. (Full story)

"Zinedine, you know, the hardest thing this morning is not to try and understand why Les Bleus, your Bleus, lost the World Cup final last night. But to explain to tens of millions around the world how you could have let yourself go and head butt Marco Materazzi, 10 minutes from the end of extra-time.

"What should we tell our children and all those for whom you have become an example for ever," he asked, concluding: "How could that happen to a man like you?"

The newspaper also criticized Zidane for failing to take to the pitch after the game to collect his medal for France's second place finish and console the team mates he had let down.

Former Sports Minister Marie-George Buffet said Zidane's act was unforgivable for its effect on children watching the game.

"We can't excuse this gesture," she told RTL radio, adding that she wanted to know the full story.

But the players themselves, who have refused to divulge what was said to Zidane by Materazzi, praised the contribution of a player widely regarded as the best of his generation.

"All I want to say to 'Zizou,' and I think France should say it and the world of 'thank you.' And thank you, that's it," France striker Thierry Henry said, using the affectionate nickname by which Zidane is known.

"To finish in a World Cup final takes nothing away from anything. On the contrary, we should thank him because if he hadn't returned (to the national side) we would not have been there tonight," said France defender Willy Sagnol.

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