Football: Zidane hails Asia's 'big step forward'

26th February 2007, Comments 0 comments

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Feb 24, 2007 (AFP) - French star Zinedine Zidane praised Asian football's "big step forward" on Saturday as he dazzled more than 10,000 fans at a charity match in northern Thailand.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Feb 24, 2007 (AFP) - French star Zinedine Zidane praised Asian football's "big step forward" on Saturday as he dazzled more than 10,000 fans at a charity match in northern Thailand.

Zidane said players like Japan's Shunsuke Nakamura, who has earned rave reviews with Scottish league-leaders Celtic, were helping to inspire a generation.

"Asian football is in the process of making a big step forward," Zidane said before taking the field with two teams of Southeast Asian players.

"When you see players like Nakamura who are playing in Europe ... they are bringing something positive to Asian football.

"It is also good for future players who are here among us today, who could make this step forward and play in a big European team."

Crowds of supporters queued for hours to see the three-time World Player of the Year, whose image was blemished by his infamous headbutt in last year's World Cup final. Hundreds without tickets lingered outside.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch a superstar," gushed nursing student Tirada Haengkoat, 20, who had queued since 9:00 am (0200 GMT) for tickets.

Zidane, who retired after the World Cup, did not disappoint, sending the crowd wild with the game's stylish opening goal.

He chipped the ball over the goalkeeper's head in the 36th minute, before setting up the second for a Malaysian team-mate for a final score of 2-2.

More than 10,000 fans turned up for the match, which raised 260,000 baht (7,750 dollars) for the Keuydaroon charity for children with HIV/AIDS.

Zidane walked on the pitch to cheers and applause, hand-in-hand with 11-year-old HIV sufferer Ton.

"Zidane inspired me to become a professional footballer, I want to be like him," Ton told AFP.

The crowd cheered every time the Frenchman touched the ball, and gave a rapturous reception to the exhibition performance.

"Even if he doesn't play at the total level of his capacity, I am so excited when he gets the ball," said Akanan Lamthong, 20.

"He's trying to let other players play more than him. Asian players will learn a lot from this match."

Among the Asian players were Thai legend Piyapong Pue-On and his compatriot Kiatisak "Zico" Senamuang. Other players were from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Zidane, who played for nearly an hour, earlier delighted local reporters by greeting them in Thai.

"Today sports and even life, it's more than a game," he said.

"I wanted to share time with these children, to try to do certain things which could bring happiness to the people," he added.

Tens of thousands turned out to see Zidane play in an exhibition match in Bangladesh last November, while a December trip to Algeria -- his parents' homeland -- triggered a scrum at the airport, with some visiting dignitaries nearly squashed in the stampede.

The hero's welcome across the globe contrasts with last year's unsavoury end to his career, when he was sent off in Berlin for headbutting Italy's Marco Materazzi.

Although Southeast Asian football teams are not among the best in the world, the region is passionate about the game. International competitions spark widespread betting, which is illegal in Thailand.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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