"Zizou, you are a legend!" The cry comes from an overexcited young boy in the midst of a crowd gathered at Sun City, one of South Africa's most popular tourist destinations, to watch Zinedine Zidane play in a five-a-side tournament. The French icon appears relaxed and unfazed as eager fans try to squeeze past his four bodyguards for a photo or an autograph. He grins, but says little. "That's Zizou", his aide quips, "he never says much."
Since retiring from the game, Zidane has kept his public appearances to a minimum, and interviews have been even rarer. Yet despite his withdrawal from the limelight, the former Real Madrid midfielder remains as idolised as ever by football fans the world over, for whom memories of his elegant brilliance remain vivid.
South Africa's affection was certainly reciprocated when Zizou *chatted exclusively to FIFA.com, with the three-time FIFA World Player taking the opportunity to compliment the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts. The former France captain also offered his assessment on the prospects for African nations at next year's finals, reflected with fondness and pride on France 1998, and gave his take on *Les Bleus' current difficulties.
FIFA.com: Having now spent some time in South Africa, what are your impressions of the country and its people? Zinedine Zidane: This is a very beautiful country. I have to say I'm impressed and so far I'm enjoying myself here. I'm sure that people are going to love being here. The thing is, not many people (from outside the continent) have been to Africa; for many it will be a new and completely different experience.
Of course, you yourself are of Algerian descent. How do you feel about the fact that the FIFA World Cup will be staged on African soil for the first time?
It's great for African football that we have the World Cup here. For me, it's an exciting period and an opportunity for Africa to show the rest of the world what it is capable of doing. I think this World Cup will be the best opportunity for African teams to prove to the rest of the world their capabilities. One of the things that will be to their advantage is that they will be playing on home soil - that should be a motivation in itself. What I know is that, for every player, to appear in any World Cup is an honour. However, when the event is on home soil, it brings a fantastic feeling. And from our time in France (in 1998), we saw what playing the tournament at home means. The atmosphere from your own supporters just adds more flavour and gives more motivation to the players.
I didn't know that this event had so much power to influence society, but from our experience (in 1998) I think we all saw what it can do.
What do you think this FIFA World Cup will mean to the South African people?
Hosting the World Cup is a special moment for any country and I'm sure South Africans will embrace the tournament. The thing about the World Cup is that it brings happiness to the supporters and I would urge South Africans to enjoy it, enjoy every moment of it because it's something they might not experience again in their lives. I'm sure this is going to be a fantastic and a new experience for many people in the country.
You mention how special it is to play in a FIFA World Cup on home soil. Can you share your experience of France 1998 with us?
I remember one of the most touching scenes for me was seeing people hugging in the streets after we won the tournament at home; it was a great moment. Many people were in tears, they were so happy - all people, both black and white. For me, that was one of the most rewarding feelings, and I hope that might also happen in South Africa. I didn't know that this event had so much power to influence society, but from our experience I think we all saw what it can do.
Who do you think will win the FIFA Confederations Cup in June?
(Pauses) I don't know, I can't really say which side will win. I think it will be interesting. We have many good sides competing.
I'm sure you have been asked so many times about that Final against Italy at Germany 2006. Given an opportunity to do it all again, would you do things differently?(Smiles) I don't really want to talk about that. So much has been said about that game, so much has been written about things that happened during it, but to me it's history now. It was a great game and we wanted to win it. Obviously, I would have loved to see France on the winning side, but it didn't happen.
Just before that FIFA World Cup, you had played your last-ever match for Real Madrid against Villarreal. How did it feel to walk out at the Bernabeu for the last time?It was a very emotional moment for me. Many people who know me will probably tell you that I'm not really good at showing emotions, but that game was different. When I looked at the stands, I saw my friends and my family there. They were there to support me and that made the match even more special for me. I remember that I battled to hold back tears. The thing is, deep down you know that this is your last game of your club career and, throughout my life, I have always loved playing football.
You have clearly enjoyed a hugely illustrious career. What do you regard as your biggest achievement in football?Winning the World Cup on home soil was great, it was a special moment and it will always rate among the biggest achievements in my career.
The French team have endured a difficult period since you retired. What do you make of their current situation?I think its fair for people to say they have been disappointed with the results from the team, they have gone through a rough patch, but I think its unfair for some individuals to say they are a bad side. They are not a bad team at all but, as I said, they are just going through a difficult period. France still have some special players who can turn their fortunes around.