French players missing Zidane

Updated: June 16, 2008, 11:25 AM ET
Associated Press

France's players are missing Zinedine Zidane's leadership at the European Championship.

Still reeling from a 4-1 loss to the Netherlands, the French team heads into Tuesday's match against Italy in Zurich needing a win and some help to make the quarterfinals.

This time, the player fans loved to call "Zizou" is not around to save them -- he retired two years ago.

"We miss Zizou," winger Franck Ribery said. "It's in these really tough situations that we like to talk about former players. He had to stop, yes, but he is sorely missed by the French team. We have to learn how to play differently."

Zidane's last match was the 2006 World Cup final against Italy, which saw the playmaker sent off in extra time for head-butting Marco Materazzi. France then lost on penalty kicks with Zidane in the dressing room and his career over.

At Euro 2008, France drew its opening match against Romania 0-0, and then was routed by the Dutch.

Zidane, who scored three goals in two World Cup finals, and a Golden Goal penalty kick in the Euro 2000 semifinals against Portugal, had a penchant for scoring when it really mattered.

Asked what Zidane would have done against Romania or the Netherlands, Ribery's answer underlined just how much Zidane is still revered, and also reflected how much France now lacks efficiency in front of the goal.

"He would have got the ball and scored three goals," said Ribery, who has replaced from Zidane as the team's penalty-kick taker. "By his presence, he would do everyone some good ... but that's the way it is."

Goalkeeper Gregory Coupet also thinks Zidane's mercurial touch is sorely lacking.

"We lost a great captain like Zidane," Coupet said. "It's not easy to replace the best player in the world."

Coupet is certain Zidane's departure left a huge void that coach Raymond Domenech has since struggled to fill.

"There is a new generation (of players) and we are also trying to build a group," Coupet said. "Perhaps that is the explanation."

Other French players, however, seem to be growing tired of hearing about Zidane.

"We've been playing for two years without Zidane now," 36-year-old defender Lilian Thuram said. "And there is never one boss in a team, but 11 individual talents who are at the team's service."

Claude Makelele, Zidane's midfield partner at Euro 2004 and at the 2006 World Cup, echoed Thuram's words.

"It is the way the team played that allowed Zidane to show his talent," Makelele said. "Besides, Zidane is unique."


NO CENSORSHIP: UEFA has denied suggestions by Austrian and Swiss television companies that it tried to suppress coverage of crowd problems at Austria's opening European Championship match against Croatia.

Flares smuggled by fans into Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium were lit in the crowd during Croatia's 1-0 win over the co-hosts on June 8, but Switzerland's SRG-SSR TV and Austria's OERF did not show images of the incidents.

The state broadcasters said UEFA, which feeds footage from 30 of its own cameras at each match to rights holders, opted not to provide shots of the disturbances, but European football's governing body said Monday that was not the case.

Responding to comments by SRG director general Armin Walpen that suppression of footage was "more than problematic," UEFA on Monday rejected any suggestion it had censored the images. UEFA said it had not interfered with the feeds in any way and that the companies' own directors were responsible for selecting what was seen by viewers.

"Maybe the TV companies need to speak to their directors before they speak to us," UEFA spokesman William Gaillard said.

In the same game, the British Broadcasting Corp. decided not to show footage of a Croatia fan who made his way to the coaches' bench on the side of field. Gaillard said that was also the decision of the individual company.

British television rarely shows spectators invading the field at sporting events to try and discourage copycats. Gaillard said the Croatia fan had been sponsored by a beer company, and that UEFA responded by taking away all the company's match passes.


GIVE THE KID A BREAK: Former Italy captain Paolo Maldini once said that Sergio Ramos would be the best defender in the world. It hasn't quite looked that way at the European Championship.

Spain coach Luis Aragones had to beat back criticism of his right back after a second straight sub-par performance in Spain's 2-1 victory against Sweden on Saturday.

Ramos watched from his backside as Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic swiveled to score after outmuscling the Real Madrid defender to control the ball inside Spain's area. Ramos hasn't looked his best with the national team after winning a second straight Spanish league title with Madrid.

"There are games that are better than others, but Sergio is vital (to the team)," Aragones said.

Madrid paid Sevilla $41 million for the 22-year-old nearly three years ago, making Ramos the second most expensive signing in club history. But Ramos hasn't been charging up the right side as he usually does with Madrid's attack. His always dangerous heading ability hasn't shown up anywhere near the ball on set plays either.

"We had a long talk about when he should go up and when he shouldn't ... everything is clear," Aragones said. "He gives us something extra that is hard to find anywhere else. There's no discussion necessary about Sergio."

Aragones stuck by his man after a picture of Ramos at a late night disco on his off day emerged following Spain's 4-1 win over Russia. If Aragones' promise is anything to go by, the Spanish coach should be out at the disco with Ramos on Sunday: Aragones promised to do so if the team beats Sweden.


ROBO-BALL: The days of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nihat Kahveci and David Villa are numbered.

Machines will soon beat human soccer players, and its only a question of when, not if.

That's what scientists said Monday from the sidelines of the European robot soccer tournament.

Teams from across the continent and elsewhere are competing for a berth in the finals in Linz, Austria, later this week.

"The aim is for a robot team to beat the (human) world champions in 2050," said Rolf Pfeifer, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Zurich.

Others are more ambitious.

"I think that by 2015 or 2017 a robot team will beat the Austrian national squad," said Peter Kopacek of Vienna's Technical University. "It'll be 2025 before they beat the Brazilians."

In any case, machines have a long way to go before they master the tricks of professional athletes.

In the two-legged category, the fastest robots take 35 seconds to complete 8-foot sprint. Others take five minutes, fall over or get hopelessly lost on the field.

In the wheel-driven category, meanwhile, passing is unheard of and the game largely consists of pushing an orange golf ball into the enemy goal.

Still, the sport has come a long way since the mid-1990s, Kopacek said

"Spectators used to cheer if a robot crept across the field and chanced upon the ball," he said.

These days, there are shots on goal, counter-attacks and even saves by the robot keeper.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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