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By ESPN Staff
May 29, 2006

France fans concerned as Zidane labours through

PARIS, May 29 (Reuters) - A below-par performance by Zinedine Zidane has left French fans worried the ageing maestro might struggle during his final challenge at next month's World Cup.

The classy playmaker, who will retire after the tournament, was only a shadow of his former brilliant self in Saturday's 1-0 win over Mexico in a warm-up game.

The balding 33-year-old, winning his 100th cap and playing his last match at the Stade de France where he scored twice in France's 3-0 defeat of Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, looked sluggish and made many uncharacteristic errors.

Coach Raymond Domenech was not too concerned, saying Zidane still had time to get in shape before France's opening Group G match against Switzerland on June 13 in Stuttgart.

"We will have all the answers on June 13, 18 and 23," said Domenech, referring to France's other matches in the group phase against South Korea and Togo, when asked about Zidane's form.

Zidane's vision, effortless close control, delicate turns and ability to create space have not disappeared overnight but the skills that made him one of soccer's all-time greats were nowhere to be seen on the Stade de France pitch on Saturday.

After 52 painful minutes, he left to a standing ovation from the crowd, leaving his place to Vikash Dhorasoo, who was copiously booed.

"It was always planned to substitute him," said Domenech. "That way, the fans could give him the tribute he deserves after all the joy he has brought them over all those years."

It was obvious, however, that the great man needed a rest and more substitutions are likely for the France captain on the pitches of Germany.

The signs have been there for some time that Zidane, who led France to their 1998 World Cup triumph and the European title two years later, was no longer the commanding force of old.

Always an artist more than an athlete, the elegant midfielder now clearly struggles to keep up with the pace of modern football which is why he announced last month that he would hang up his boots after the World Cup.

France still rely heavily on the gifted son of Algerian immigrants and need some Zidane magic if they are to go far in the tournament.

Zidane, however, cannot do it alone.

"People are expecting him to take care of everything and to dictate play all the time," said France striker Djibril Cisse.

"That's a lot of pressure and it's difficult to bear, even for such a great player.

"He can't do the work of 11 players on his own. He needs some help from the players around him."