First there was Napoleon Bonaparte. Then there was Charles de Gaulle. Now there is Zinedine Zidane.
Napoleon needed the bullets and steel of thousands of troops to bring Europe to its knees. De Gaulle needed Allies to free France from the Nazis. But the Algerian-Frenchman known as "Zizou" needed only his head to do what neither of those earlier warriors could: conquer the world for France.
Indeed, for the next four years, the words "Zinedine Zidane" will be a linguistic currency accepted in more countries than Visa or American Express. From Andorra to Zambia, his name will be a phrase able to bridge any language gap. That's because about 1 in every 3 people on the planet saw Zizou score two headers Sunday against Brazil (a.k.a. "The Greatest Team on Earth") in one of the most surprising World Cup soccer finals ever played.
The French defensemen played their part, living up to their billing as the toughest defense in the tournament by erecting an impenetrable wall around the world's most gifted soccer player, Brazil's Ronaldo. Fans did their part, too, bathing the 80,000-seat Stade de France in bleu, blanc, et rouge.
But the virtuoso performance was turned in by Zizou. By sending two corner kicks into Brazil's net with the crown of his bronzed head, the midfielder saved the Frenchmen from their own offensive ineptitude.
Throughout the tournament, the French forwards had found ways to not score. Whether shanking the ball into Row F, shooting at the goalkeeper, or whiffing completely, the half-dozen forwards that coach Aim Jacquet paraded onto the field inspired little confidence.
Before the final, forwards hadn't scored a goal since the first round of the tournament.
They still haven't.
But so complete was France's domination that even after one of its defenders was ejected in the 68th minute, it still looked to be the more composed side.
But had it not been for Zizou's two strikes, the effort would have been for nought. And that would have been a shame, because France gave Brazil a thrashing, it deserved to win, and it deserved to win by a lot. Thanks to Zidane (and a last-second strike from midfielder Emmanuel Petit), it did, 3-0.
For soccer fans, the French performance was inspiring. France took on the most talented soccer team in the world this year and reduced it to ashes.
Sure, many teams can defend, but it takes a rare group of backliners to make defense fun to watch. France had such a combination this year.
Throughout the match, the Brazilian offense snapped like a rubber band around the player with the ball, pushing at the fringes of the French defense, trying to pull defenders out of position, so it could send another player in to score.
But with devastating speed and precision, the French defensemen countered each of the Brazilians' moves, moving in a way that maintained their cohesiveness and prevented Brazilian penetration. Then, in this ebb and flow, a defender would wait for a moment when the offense was vulnerable and pounce, killing the advance with a well-timed tackle or interception.
This is how the French defense managed to give up only two goals in seven World Cup games - a new record. And it's how they beat Brazil.
Still, when soccer fans sing the praises of World Cup 1998, none will speak of that hallowed French defense. Mention the name of back Franck Leboeuf, you'll get a blank stare.
"Zizou," you'll say.
"Zizou," they'll reply, eyes brimming with memories.
Isn't it appropriate that, in this age of globalism, France should put forward a man whose less-than-pure-French name may make linguists at the Acadmie Franaise wince? And that in an age of fountain-of-youth drugs, the most-heralded head on Earth should be one with barely enough fuzz to cover a tennis ball?
And while the triumph may force the French to admit that Pont l'Eveque cheese is now only their second-greatest source of pride, one would guess that even French farmers won't mind. After all, it's not often that the world is willing to join in a rousing chorus of "Vive la France!"
* Mark Sappenfield writes a weekly column on soccer for the e-Monitor, the Monitor's online service at www.csmonitor.com