Yazid Zinedine Zidane, affectionately known the world over as Zizou, tends to avoid the glare of publicity: should he add a third FIFA World Player of the Year title to those bestowed on him in 1998 and 2000, he will no doubt ward off the applause with a gesture, a hand to the brow perhaps, his green eyes averted like a supporting actor unable to accept or comprehend why he has been cast in the leading role.

Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants and the youngest of five children, grew up in modest surroundings to the north of Marseilles, consumed by a boyhood passion for tennis, judo and of course football. As a child he would spend hours in street kick-abouts with friends, and then continue indoors after dark: the Zidane household got used to replacing the odd broken lamp or window.

Zizou is now a world superstar, but despite a salary running into millions and a chorus of praise from all sides, the fame has patently not gone to his head. Happily married to Véronique and the proud father of Enzo, Luca and Theo, he has not forgotten his roots and the environment which nurtured him. His parents and closest friends are first on the guest list for official engagements, and is he not too refined to take part in an occasional afternoon kick around with the youths in the district of Marseilles where he grew up. "He's actually a modest lad," father Smail observes. "And Yaz is a lovely husband and wonderful father too," the player's sister Lila proudly comments.

It took a while for Zidane's footballing qualities to earn widespread recognition: he made his debut as a 17 year-old for AS Cannes in 1989, and won himself a Renault Clio from club president Alain Pedretti in 1991 on scoring his first goal in the French top flight. He then spent a lengthy period in the shadow of Michel Platini.

The bubble of expectation burst after two Champions League Final defeats in 1997 and 1998 with Juventus. "Not Platini at all," the critics muttered, quietened but still not silenced by Zizou’s brace in the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final and a first FIFA World Player of the Year award. The playmaker stood accused of only applying his prodigious skills when things were running smoothly for his team.

In 2000 he added a European Championship medal to his FIFA World Cup honours and collected his second FIFA World Player of the Year accolade. A dream winner for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League Final against Bayer Leverkusen appeared to have finally silenced the critics, even if Real finished a relatively poor third in Spain. Then came France’s collapse to a first-round exit at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Following a relaxing winter vacation on the Seychelles with close friend Christophe Dugarry, the year 2003 began in promising fashion for the tennis and Formula One fan. Zidane was back to his sprightly best in a 4-1 victory over Valencia, scoring a goal and laying on another. Real suffered an early Cup exit to Mallorca at the end of January after Zidane was substituted at half-time, but the Madrid giants enjoyed an excellent domestic league campaign, holding their nerve to claim a 29th championship. Real disappointed in Europe though, falling to Zidane's former club Juventus in the Champions League semi-final. Zizou’s late goal in the return leg was a case of too little too late.

After missing the start of the new 2003-2004 season with a thigh injury, Zidane was on target in a 7-2 victory stroll against Valladolid. Real's league form has been patchy at best so far; they recently went down to a bitter 4-1 defeat in Seville, the first time they had conceded four goals in a single half for more than 50 years. The French national team has been in superb form though, benefiting the player in his search for consistency. France were among the first to qualify for EURO 2004 in Portugal, and new coach Jacques Santini's record speaks for itself: since the debacle at the FIFA World Cup, France have played 19, won 17, drawn one and lost only once. The European champions are currently on a run of 13 straight wins.

Zidane fills a number of roles on the field: he is a playmaker, a distributor, and always good for a goal. Even seasoned observers catch their breath when the exceptionally gifted 1.85 metre tall player, aided by a wonderful sense of balance, cruises the field with the ball obeying his bidding as if by magic.

Zidane just might glide into the limelight again on 15 December at the FIFA World Player of the Year Gala, but don’t expect him to hang around to take the plaudits: he is, after all, a modest lad.