The people in La Castellane have no problem identifying themselves with Marseille, which has always been the toughest and most deprived of French cities. You can make out the bay and old port of Marseille from practically any vantage point in La Castellane and the second generation of immigrants are proud to adopt the distinctive slang and accent of the city as their own. But still almost everybody who lives here refuses point-blank to identify themselves as French.
La Castellane is the home town of Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid playmaker who, as he approaches his professional peak at the age of 32, is probably the most complete and gifted footballer of his generation.
This opinion is pretty much universal in football, especially among those who have worked most closely with him. Aimé Jacquet, the French coach whose victory in the 1998 World Cup was hammered home with two goals from Zidane in the final, claims to have recognised immediately that Zidane was a phenomenon. 'Zidane has an internal vision,' he told me 'His control is precise and discreet. He can make the ball do whatever he wants. But it is his drive which takes him forward. He is 100 per cent football.'
Jacques Santini, the current manager of France whose goal is to win Euro 2004 with a side led by Zidane, is careful not to praise his players more than is strictly necessary. But he says pretty much the same thing. 'He never shies from responsibility either on the field or off it,' he says. 'That's why he is such a good influence on the game and such a captain. He is never afraid.'
Fellow players, too, admire his consistency and strength, especially those who play alongside him. Luis Figo, a notorious stickler for efficiency and organisation in a team, describes his control and pace as 'extraordinary'. David Beckham, when I spoke to him, unabashedly called his colleague 'the greatest player in the world'. Even Thierry Henry, who recently lost out to Zidane for the title of Fifa World Player of the Year, admires his integrity, describing his team-mate in the France squad as 'the guy we can always count on, the one who really takes control'.
If there is a criticism to be made of Zidane, it is that he does not respond well to failure and that he can drift in and out of play. Yet his technical brilliance can never be underestimated even during his quietest or darkest moments. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the European Cup final of 2002. Returning from suspension and battling to cast out the memory of two consecutive defeats in the final with Juventus, in 1997 and 1998, Zidane, on the stroke of half-time, lashed in a left-foot volley of almost supernatural brilliance against Bayer Leverkusen. The goal inspired Real Madrid to their ninth victory in the competition in their centenary year.
In the days that followed the triumph, even the most sceptical madridistas , those diehards still faithful to the eras of Emilio Butragueño or Alfredo Di Stefano, all but bowed down before Zidane.
In the past 10 years, Zinedine Zidane has claimed every top honour that the game has to offer. Most importantly, for the inhabitants of La Castellane, he has never forgotten his roots. His parents still live near the area in a large house in the only slightly posher suburb of Les Pennes-Mirabeau. One of his brothers, Farid, coaches the local team, Nouvelle Vague, which has Zidane as its life president. The kids here are grateful to him, even if they are indifferent to his status as a French national icon. 'When you say you're from La Castellane people are usually afraid,' says Karim, the goalkeeper with Nouvelle Vague. 'Then when you point out you play for a team led by Zidane, they suddenly show you respect.'
In the rest of France, Zidane, nicknamed 'Zizou' by the public, is admired for his decency as well as his footballing skills. His public priorities are football, family and friends. His family are Algerian immigrants, so-called beurs (French slang for Arabs), and he describes himself as 'a non-practising Muslim'.
Zidane's appeal transcends the religious and racial divide in one of the most tense multi-ethnic societies in Europe. Most notably, he recently came first in a poll for 'the most popular Frenchman of all time', beating the more established figures of ageing rocker Johnny Hallyday and crooner Michel Sardou. Most significant of all was the fact this poll was conducted in the Journal du Dimanche, the bestselling French equivalent of the Daily Mail. 'To be recognised by a whole country is incredible,' Zidane said of the poll when we met. 'This is massive. Before it was hard to talk about certain things, especially if like me you came from a difficult area or from an immigrant background. But now it tells you how France has changed and is changing. It's a message to everybody - politicians, the kids I grew up with, ordinary French people - about what can be done.'
For many commentators, Zidane's wholly unexpected victory in this mainstream arena marked a new political maturity in France. French intellectuals are usually contemptuous of sport but the novelist Philippe Sollers was only half-joking when he called for Zidane to take over as French Prime Minister. In an equally provocative mood, the influential social critic Pascal Boniface hailed Zidane's popularity as no less than the beginning of 'a new Enlightenment'.
Zidane is equally famous for sidestepping politics. 'I have no message,' he repeatedly remarked in the wake of his 1998 World Cup triumph. Zidane, and those close to him, claim that he rarely speaks because he is a naturally timid and modest person. But there are other reasons, too. 'There are too many sharks around Zinedine,' explains his brother Nordine. 'There are too many people who want to use him for political ends.'
Consequently, Zidane's public persona has been as carefully constructed and as skilfully defended as any of his most elaborate midfield moves. He may be popular but, for most of the French public, he is also resolutely unknowable.
It is difficult to imagine a place further removed from the industrial grime of La Castellane than the Real Madrid training ground, just off the Paseo de la Castellana, the long avenue that runs through the northern suburbs of Madrid. The security is tight but, once past the lines of autograph hunters, amateur photographers and lad-mag journalists looking for a story, the atmosphere among the super-rich and famous young men exercising on the several pitches or chatting in the mini-stands is surprisingly relaxed. No doubt last night's convincing victory over Sevilla in front of an ecstatic home crowd in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu contributes to the amiable mood of the Real Madrid players.
The arrival of David Beckham in an absurdly huge four-wheel drive with blacked-out windows sparks a flurry of activity as a group of girls rushes the gate. As I pass through the various dressing rooms a few minutes later, I can hear the younger Real Madrid lads teasing Beckham in Spanish.
'David, we love you,' they say.
Beckham smiles, then chuckles, but he clearly does not understand.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the pitch, Roberto Carlos is goofing around, practising scissor-kicks for a Brazilian television crew. As I walk over to greet Zidane near the players' tunnel, the left-back, who is obviously the joker in the Real Madrid pack, kicks a ball between us, comes over to bear-hug the French player and whispers noisily in his ear, making him laugh out loud.
The gesture is no doubt meant as a reassuring signal not to take interviewers too seriously. The first thing I notice about Zidane is that for a player of such commanding elegance on the field, he is, in person, rather awkward, even gawky. He even sits delicately, like a girl, legs together, hands folded in his lap. My second thought is that he probably is genuinely shy.
Yet there had been no trace of this at the official press conference earlier in the day. In the face of tough questioning from European football journalists - about his contract, about last night's cup tie against Sevilla and the future of Real Madrid - Zidane, speaking in both French and Spanish, had been controlled, diffident and ironic. But when I asked him where he felt most at home, he was guarded. 'I am first of all from La Castellane and Marseille,' he began, hesitantly. 'I love Madrid. I am happy to be here. I have been here three years and hope to be here longer. But I am proud of where I come from and never forget the people I grew up with. Wherever I go, La Castellane is where I want to go back to. It is still my home... It is true that it is still a difficult area, what is called in French a quartier difficile . But I think there is also a special culture there. I think Marseille is probably a place like Liverpool, very vibrant and very tough. I know players such as Bruno Cheyrou and Anthony Le Tallec, who should do well in Liverpool for this reason. My passion for the game comes from the city of Marseille itself. Unfortunately I can't go back there as much I want to because I play a lot here and abroad. But I am still a supporter of Olympique de Marseille. I used to go to see them play even when I was a player for AS Cannes.'
He speaks with the clattering vowels peculiar to his home city and has the peppery, light-skinned features common to the Berber people of North Africa. The Berbers are not Arabs and in recent years the Berbers from the Kabylie region of Algeria, which is Zidane's family's home territory, have been in open conflict with the Algerian government. There are rumours of massacre and counter-massacre, but all that is really known in the West is that more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in the civil war that has devastated the country since 1992.
Despite pressure from lobby groups, Zidane has never commented on the war in public or on his Berber origins; but he is clearly pleased that this identity should not be overlooked in the English-speaking press. 'My family are very proud of me, but I am very proud of them and where they come from. I am proud that they come from Kabylie. It is a special place and my roots there are important to me. We used to go all the time to my father's home village when we were young. But now, it's like Marseille and La Castellane: even though I want to go back it is difficult for so many reasons.'
The Zidane family legend is that when Zinedine's father, Smaïl, left the family village of Taguemoune in the remote hills of Algeria, he came first to Paris and, like many of his compatriots, headed for the tough northern districts of Barbès and Saint-Denis (the latter is now, coincidentally, the site of the Stade de France, the venue for Zidane's greatest triumph when he inspired France to a 3-0 win over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final). There was little work and even less money and so the family moved to Marseille, which, in any event, was culturally and geographically closer to the home country.
On arriving in Marseille, in the mid-1960s, Smaïl worked as a warehouseman, often on the night shift. But he was an attentive father and was disturbed to discover that his son often had nightmares when his 'Papa' was away. He remembers Zinedine as a 'gentle little boy' but one who was still energetic enough to smash all the lights in the apartment with his ball.
Zidane talks about his father with respect and admiration. 'I'm very inspired by him,' he tells me. 'It was my father who taught us that an immigrant must work twice as hard as anybody else, that he must never give up.'
Zidane talks about his own young family with pride. He married Véronique, who is of French-Spanish extraction, in 1992. They met while he was at Cannes and they now have three boys, each with an Italian name. 'They are all good footballers,' he says. 'I would be happy for them to go into the game. But they must work hard first. That is what I have learnt.'
Smaïl did not watch the 1998 World Cup final - he was looking after Zidane's son Luca - but he declared himself moderately pleased with the goals that his 'Yazid' had scored. 'It was a great thing for us all,' says Zidane, recalling the patriotic joy that enveloped France after the match. 'We were a family who had come from nothing and now we had respect from French people of all sorts.' This was when Zidane mania reached its height in France, when posters, graffiti and rap songs declared 'Zizou Président' and the Algerian flag flew alongside the French tricolour on the Champs-Elysées.
The euphoria did not last long. Within days of the famous victory, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National, was growling in the press about the racial origins of the France team, singling out Zidane for faint praise as 'a son of French Algeria'. His comment was carefully loaded. The term 'French Algeria' is never neutral in the French media: it returns one inevitably to the colonial state that only ended in 1962 after a long and brutal war. The implication was that as 'a son of French Algeria', Zidane was either a colonial lackey or a traitor to the country of his father's birth.
Then one of Le Pen's henchmen declared that if Zidane was acceptable to the French it was only because his father had been a harki . This Arabic word describes the Algerians who fought for the French during the Algerian war and who were massacred or fled to France in its aftermath. Harkis were the forgotten victims of the colonial war, hated by their own people who saw them as collaborators and despised by the French, who remember them with shame. The insult was calculated to cause damage and hurt, especially in the suburbs such as La Castellane.
One of the most immediate conse quences of this libel was that the friendly match between France and Algeria at the Stade de France in October 2001 proved to be one of the most harrowing moments of Zidane's career. The event was billed as an historic moment of reconciliation between two nations who could not quite live without each other and who had, since Algerian independence, never met on a football field.
The reality was grotesque. In the lead-up to the match Zidane received death threats. During the game, he was booed and taunted and, he says now, was 'disconcerted' by the posters that read 'Zidane-Harki'. The match was abandoned after a pitch invasion in the second half, with young French Arabs chanting in favour of bin Laden and against the French state. The multicultural adventure launched by the French team of 1998 was in disarray. The far right was on the move.
Zidane's response was to this fiasco was finally to break his public silence about his father's identity. 'I say this once for all time: my father is not a harki ,' he announced to the press. 'My father is an Algerian, proud of who he is and I am proud that my father is Algerian. The only important thing I have to say is that my father never fought against his country.'
Since this statement, Zidane has become more comfortable and less defensive about his origins, feeling free to lend his support, in the company of Gérard Depardieu, to a recent campaign against the Front National, or becoming the public face of young immigrant France, the so-called génération Zidane .
As we chat about Algeria, Marseille, music and family, the atmosphere becomes more relaxed; hands are unclasped and Zidane talks with real enthusiasm. 'I was lucky to come from a difficult area,' he says. 'It teaches you not just about football but also life. There were lots of kids from different races and poor families. People had to struggle to get through the day. Music was important. Football was the easy part.'
It's easier now to imagine Zidane as the precociously talented teenager, nicknamed 'Yaz' by his brothers, practising his intricate footballing touches in the gravel of Place de la Tartane, the central square in La Castellane. Yet photographs from this time show an anxious child, eager to please, self-conscious but determined. 'Yazid was a very modest, humble lad,' says his childhood pal Doudou. 'We used to tease him about this. But we also knew if one us would succeed it would be him. He was always very sure of winning.'
One of the theories about Zidane as a player is that he is driven by an inner rage. His football is elegant and masterful, charged with technique and vision. But he can still erupt into shocking violence that is as sudden as it is inexplicable. The most famous examples of this include head butting Jochen Kientz of Hamburg during a Champions League match, when he was at Juventus in 2000 (an action that cost him a five match suspension) and his stomping on the hapless Faoud Amin of Saudi Arabia during the 1998 World Cup finals (this latter action was, strangely enough, widely applauded in the Berber community as Zidane's revenge on hated Arab 'extremists').
Zidane's first coaches at AS Cannes noticed quickly that he was raw and sensitive, eager to attack spectators who insulted his race or family. The priority of his first coach, Jean Varraud, was to get him to channel his anger and focus more on his game. According to Varraud, Zidane's first weeks at Cannes were spent mainly on cleaning duty as a punishment for punching an opponent who had mocked his ghetto origins.
By the time he arrived at Juventus, in 1996, he had become known for his self-control and discipline, both on and off the pitch. He had developed these traits during a spell at Bordeaux under Rolland Courbis, a fellow marseillais and one of the craftiest heads in French football. Courbis understood immediately that Zidane was an untamed talent. He described the player's two years at Bordeaux as a period when he most needed direction. It was at Bordeaux that he acquired the nickname 'Zizou' and learnt to keep his emotions under tight control. 'You could see he was an extraordinary player straight away,' says Courbis now, 'but it was a moment in his career when you couldn't afford to do just anything with him. For example, you couldn't just give him his head and burn him out in a season.'
And yet in his early days at Juventus, particularly in big matches, some of his temperamental faults would resurface, and there were doubts over his ability to lead from the centre of the pitch. The coming years in Serie A hardened him and it was no accident that during this period he emerged as probably the best midfielder in the world. However the Juventus fans, including the club president Gianni Agnelli, were dazzled by his football but baffled by his reluctance to take advantage of the rewards on offer in Turin - the girls, the nightclubs, the cars. Unlike Michel Platini, who been loved by the Juve fans as much for his flamboyant wit as for his football, Zidane was remote, inscrutable, devoted to his wife, his extended family and his children.
The move to Madrid has helped him to relax and to become more comfortable with his celebrity. 'I don't know if we are the best team in the world,' he says of Madrid, 'but I know that I am lucky to be playing alongside some of the best players around. It's a dream.'
He is excited about Euro 2004, especially after the mysterious failure of France in the last World Cup, although he is diffident about the game against England on 13 June. He singles out Beckham for praise ('he has adapted well to the life here and the game; he is very good indeed') but is less interested in other aspects of the English game. 'I have never had the opportunity to play in England, so I know little about it,' he says. 'The England team must always be respected. They always fight to the end...' The voice tails off and the statement is punctuated with a shrug.
In Madrid, where his racial and cultural identity are mostly irrelevant to his fans (although Spaniards can be among the worst anti-Arab racists in Europe), Zidane has found a city in which he claims to feel at ease. 'It is a Mediterranean city,' he says, 'and that is really my culture.'
And yet there is still the same recognisable and palpable tension in his play and in his manner. The difficulty for Zidane, and he admits as much, is that no matter where he goes or what he achieves it is impossible for him to avoid being caught in the vicious crossfire of French racial politics. He has consistently refused, for example, to be associated, even in the most minor way, with the beur culture of reggae, rap and raï, which are the true soundtrack to life in the crowded French suburbs (raï is the hybrid Arabic pop of North Africa), even to the extent of getting his managers to ban the sale of CDs made by local bands from Marseille that celebrated him in music.
Most tellingly, after the 1998 World Cup, Zidane published a book, Mes copains d'abord (My Friends First), with Christophe Dugarry, fellow veteran of Bordeaux and the World Cup squad. Zidane was here more explicit than he had ever been before about what the victory had meant for him and his commu nity: 'It was for all Algerians who are proud of their flag,' he said, 'all those who have made sacrifices for their family but who have never abandoned their own culture.'
No one seemed to notice when this quotation was quietly dropped from the second edition of the book. Nor that, in allowing this to happen, Zidane had committed a minor but telling form of self-betrayal.
Zidane's occasional violence may well be a product of this internal conflict: the French-Algerian who is for ever suspended between cultures. But it is equally likely that, although in public he presents a serene and smiling face, he is underneath it all every bit the same hard nut he had to be to survive the mean streets of La Castellane. 'Nobody knows if Zidane is an angel or demon,' says the rock singer Jean-Louis Murat, who is himself a fan of the player. 'He smiles like Saint Teresa and grimaces like a serial killer.'
This much had been in evidence at the match I had watched at the Bernabéu the previous evening. For most of the game, Zidane had patrolled the centre of the pitch with his customary authority and flair, tracking the Sevilla midfield with subtle predatory instinct. Just once or twice his nostrils flared and a boot went in harder than it should have done, or a Seville player was snapped in two by a reckless tackle only an inch or two from assault. 'I may have had a lot of luck in my life, but I still need to find a challenge in the game,' he says the day after the match.
These are not words that explained or justified his irregular outbursts of violence, but they do suggest that there is much more to Zidane. 'It's hard to explain but I have a need to play intensely every day, to fight every match hard,' he told me. 'And this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am. Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.'
· Andrew Hussey is the author of 'The Game of War: The Life and death of Guy Debord'. He is working on a cultural history of Paris. His last piece for OSM, on the boy boxers of Marrakesh, was published in the issue of December 2003