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Column: On Zizou, nostalgia and French mediocrity

By cruel coincidence, the day upon which France demonstrated its soccer mediocrity by losing to Spain at Euro 2012 also happened to be the 40th birthday of Zinedine Zidane.

Ah, Zizou! Even six years after the retirement of the midfielder with the magical feet, it's impossible not to miss him when his successors look so unworthy, with less collective verve than the son of Algerian immigrants sometimes seemed to have in his big toe.

More than any other Frenchman, with the exception perhaps of Michel Platini, Zidane fed the illusion that France is a great soccer power.

Has that ever seemed further from the truth than now, after this European Championship where the French tied with a wounded England, lost to Sweden and beat only the tournament co-host, Ukraine?

Yes, at the last World Cup. That was when the entire French team humiliated itself and its nation by going on strike, sitting on a bus, curtains drawn, refusing to practice. In a rare moment of lucidity, Raymond Domenech, their then-coach who no one now misses, slammed that group as "a bunch of irresponsible, stupid brats" who became "the laughing stock of the world."

So true.

A French optimist — are there any left? — would argue that the good news is that that was the nadir. Collectively punished and then put back piece by piece by Domenech's classy successor, Laurent Blanc, France does at least now have team.

Just not a very good one.

It is not a disgrace to lose 2-0 to the world and defending European champion. But in this eastern industrial outpost of European soccer, where the air had a slight chemical whiff in the Donbass Arena that overlooks mines and slag heaps, Blanc brought a team as dangerous as a popgun against a Spanish armada of stars from Barcelona and Real Madrid. While Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli ensured that this was a fair fight, it was never an equal one.

Blanc knew the Spanish would be hard to hurt because, in his words, they so rarely share the ball. That clever choreographed selfishness is both a form of attack and defense for the Spanish, because opponents can't score against them without the ball.

So Blanc set up his team to defend and hoped to rush Spain's goal when rare opportunities presented themselves.

The lack of ambition inherent in his plan paid a compliment to Spanish superiority and spoke of French inferiority. It also never really worked. Within 15 minutes, Blanc had fished out of his smart suit trousers the piece of plastic he nibbles to death during a game. Again, one couldn't help but think that Zidane and Blanc would never have displayed such temerity when they were winning the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 together.

"You have to be so efficient against Spain, with so little of the ball," Blanc said. "We tried to spring forward from the back but we weren't fast enough in getting that first pass out ... And they are also very good."

The Donetsk crowd, likely expecting a thrilling exhibition of "Ole!" soccer, instead entertained itself with chants of "Ukraine! Ukraine!" and by doing the wave. Boris Becker, who used to give tennis crowds a better show when he was winning Wimbledon, was displeased, tweeting that the game was "boring."

In fact, it's fascinating to see how Spain stifles opponents by starving them of the ball. When Jordi Alba delivered the cross that Xabi Alonso headed in for Spain's first goal, it seemed like he had all the time in the world. The Spanish so rarely seem harassed. And when they are, goalkeeper Iker Casillas is there with his safe hands, spooning away Yohan Cabaye's first-half free kick that was headed for the top right hand corner of the Spanish goal.

So the Frenchman who most recently scored a competitive goal against Spain remains Zidane, in stoppage time of a 3-1 victory at the 2006 World Cup. Patrick Vieira scored the second French goal that day, before Zizou's. And Vieira, too, celebrated his 36th birthday on Saturday.

But an even more telling statistic is that France's 2-0 defeat of Ukraine at Euro 2012 was the first time that the French had won a match in the finals of a European Championship without either Michel Platini or Zidane on the team.

Astounding. Another way to read that is that without those megastars and the successes their eras brought, we'd think of France as a middling soccer country with delusions of grandeur — a bit like England.

In rebuilding the national squad that devoured itself and the stock of goodwill that Zidane's generation had accrued, Blanc has done good work. At his first press conference as coach in 2010, Blanc said the hard core of players he felt he could lean on was no larger than "a melon's pip."

It's perhaps melon-sized now. Striker Karim Benzema is an undeniable talent, even though the Real Madrid star leaves Euro 2012 without having scored. His partnership with winger Franck Ribery will produce goals down the road. But the French defense is full of holes like Swiss cheese.

And France's old demons of 2010 — born, essentially, of players' over-inflated egos — still haven't been put completely to rest. At these Euros, Blanc was forced to douse heated arguments in the French dressing room after they lost to Sweden — a defeat that bumped France into Saturday's quarterfinal against Spain, instead of a hoped-for easier encounter with the less daunting Italians.

On his birthday, Zidane was missed more than ever.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester