zizou

Walking in the Footsteps of Zidane

Zinedine Zidane’s journey to the top of world football began in Marseille’s La Castellane neighbourhood. We travelled there to learn more about the French legend’s formative years.

by Eric Besatti
27 January 2016, 12:00pm

These days, the La Castellane neighbourhood in Marseille is better known for its bad reputation than for being the place where Zinédine Zidane grew up. 28 years after Real Madrid's new coach left the area, traces of his childhood have faded among the projects, as trafficking of all kinds has come to overshadow football.

The first things you will notice upon arriving in La Castellane are the police trucks lined up along the road. Beige-coloured buildings tower in the background, their narrow windows making them look like an impenetrable fortress. Inside, away from prying eyes, drug rings have set up a kind of supermarket. Aside from people coming to buy, nobody really has any business making the trip here.

Under an entrance porch, two teenagers are keeping an eye on the police's whereabouts and will raise the alarm if they get too close. "Ah, you're here to talk about footy, come this way and I'll show you," Karim (not his real name), a dark-haired 16-year-old wearing a tracksuit and a cap, greets us in a friendly manner.

Taking the lead through this maze of projects that 7,000 people call home, he makes his way to the community centre, speaking about all his friends who have gone to professional football training centres France. "Hakim is in Clermont, Memet in Metz..."

Zidane was just like them, leaving La Castellane for AS Cannes aged 15. Since the Frenchman took over from Rafael Benitez at Real Madrid, nothing has really changed here, except that Karim now admits to leaning "more and more towards Real compared to Barça."

READ MORE: Zinedine Zidane and the Perils of Going Back

Like on a typical postcard, three 'Chibanis' – an Arabic word used to describe old men from North Africa who came to work in France in the 1960s and '70s – are chewing the fat on a bench outside the social centre. "We knew his family," starts one of them. He is wearing a moustache and a hat, with a walking stick tucked under his arm. "I even knew the Zidanes when they were still living in Algeria," adds the man, who is from the same Kabylia region in the north of the country.

After working on construction sites in Paris, Smaïl Zidane, Zinédine's father, was on his way back to his homeland in 1962 when he met Malika. The couple eventually elected to settle down in Marseille and ended up founding a family of five children in the city's northern districts. Zinédine was born in 1972; people at home called him "Yazid", his second name.

"Our parents were very strict, it was a bit like receiving a military education," remembers Takilit, who owns a little shop at La Castellane. With her hair pulled back and a gentle face, she belongs to the same generation as Yazid and was also raised in a Kabylian family. On the door of her grocery store hangs an A3-size poster signed by Zidane, circa 2006, playing for the French national team. "For Moktar, Best regards!" The frame was gifted to Takilit's brother, who is a close friend of Zidane's older brother. Although his official name is Majdid, everybody calls him Jamel Zidane. He still lives in the neighbourhood, working as the local swimming pool caretaker.

Sporting a tracksuit and Real Madrid parka, Jamel is standing between the swimming pool's gate and a police truck, emptily staring at the roundabout down the road. As you get closer to him, the visual resemblance with Zinédine becomes striking. Perhaps his face is slightly larger, with stronger features, but otherwise both men look very much the same.

Our enthusiasm and excitement to meet the eldest Zidane is short-lived, however. "Get lost, I don't want to talk", says an irritated Jamel in a typical Marseille accent, waving us in the opposite direction. Although cold water has been poured on our hopes to get a glimpse into Yazid's childhood, we respect his decision and turn back. Jamel is described as a bit of a loner at La Castellane, and rarely make public appearances with his brother.

The trip down memory lane continues at Tartane square, a wide concrete space surrounded by towers. It's the sort of architecture that only 1970s town-planners could have come up with. Yazid would spend hours honing his craft right here in front of the 'G' building. He used to live on the first floor at No. 28, but the window is now boarded up with a metal sheet. A satellite dish still hangs on the wall, the only memento of the past dwelling.

The building has been slated for demolition as part of urban renewal plans. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls asked for it in an effort to "open" the neighbourhood – in other words, to allow the police in to crack down on the square's rampant drug-trafficking network. Tartane residents do not seem too keen on answering questions about the local hero. "There's no Zidane here." – "No, he was not playing there, now go!" Nightfall signals the end of our time at La Castellane.

READ MORE: The Cult - Zinedine Zidane

The atmosphere becomes welcoming again once you have made your way downhill and out of the projects, on to the other side of the highway. The 11-13 age group team of 'Nouvelle Vague' – the local youth football club – are training on the Saint-André pitch. (There is a small synthetic turf in the upper part of La Castellane but it has become a shooting range over the years). The club's name used to be AS Foresta when Yazid was still here, with kids playing just across the projects on a pitch that has been replaced by the 'Grand Littoral' mall.

Nouvelle Vague players now gather on the sort of local football field you can only find in Marseille and third-world cities. The ground is askew, plants have grown over the grandstands, there is no light in the dressing rooms, and the din of local trains and trucks whizzing past makes it hard to hear one another.

While the conditions are far from ideal, what's essential is here. "We're looking after the kids and taking them out of the projects," says 46-year-old Nordine, who wears a beanie to protect against the winter wind. "Really, we're more educators than coaches."

One day, two rival gangs were shooting at each other in the neighbourhood. Someone phoned the football coach and asked him "to extend practice until 7:30pm", recalls a resigned-looking father who is accompanying his son. "But you know, they are wrecking our lives, too."

La Castellane is home to 7,000 people, including 2,000 youngsters. Around 150 are involved with drug trafficking, according to journalist Philippe Pujol, who won the 2014 Albert Londres' Prize and wrote a book about Marseille's impoverished northern neighbourhoods. This is one of the reasons why Farid, another Zidane brother, decided to revive the club in 1992. In doing so, he had one clear goal: help out the community. Yazid is still the Honorary President of the association.

Zinédine Yazid Zidane, standing next to the goalkeeper on the right, in the colours of Saint-Henri. Photo Saint-Henri FC.

Zizou only stayed one year at his local club. He quickly joined their better-equipped neighbours US Saint-Henri, now known as Saint-Henri F.C. It's also their practice night and everybody huddled around the prefabricated dressing room has a story to share about Zidane. "One day, he applauded me," Hakim laughs. "I was playing for L'Estaque, he was at La Castellane, and I scored a bicycle kick." Across from him, Philippe Bisch, who now coaches the women's team, had the opportunity to play with Zizou.

Back then, "the only instruction I received was to protect Yaz", says Bisch, who played defensive midfield next to the future world champion. "One day, we were facing Marseille in the Louis-Crouzet Cup semi-finals," he continues, sounding like a combat veteran sharing past heroics. "We were losing 1-0 at half-time. In the dressing room, he was in tears, really angry, but he kept it all within. Next thing you know, he put four in the back of the net during the second half." A scout from Marseille was in attendance that day and noticed the young Yazid. Zidane would try out with the club but "they thought he was not fast enough," remembers his former teammate.

Franck Gomez has just arrived. He has a round face and is wearing a small goatee. Gomez is coaching Saint-Henri's senior team and attended school alongside the former Les Bleus playmaker and captain. He also went to Cannes' training centre with him. Having remained close to Zizou, Franck's latest text was to congratulate him on winning his first game as Real Madrid's new coach.

"Every year, he invites four of us, former Cannes players, to spend a few days in Madrid. We go and see practices, attend a game at the Bernabeu and share dinner at a restaurant." Zidane's superstardom has not driven him away from his close friends. "As long as you stay the same with him, he does not change either." It was no surprise then to see the Frenchman appoint David Bettoni, who he also met in Cannes, as his assistant at Madrid.

By now, players have gradually gathered around their coach to hear his tales from the past. "Come on guys, let's go to the dressing room; it's time for training and there is no Cristiano Ronaldo here!" Gomez pokes fun at his players. This might sound odd, but the old-timers remember that while Zidane "stood out from the crowd in terms of skills, he was not the most talented prospect of his generation." For instance, his brother Nordine was better but he would lose his temper too easily. "The key difference is that Yazid knew exactly what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go. He was relentless about it."

And that was when he was only 14. The rest, as they say, is history.

@ebesatti