Zinedine Zidane's return to form raises French World Cup hopes

Zinedine Zidane waited a long time for his first career hat trick. With the World Cup six months away, the timing could not be better for France. Zidane's three goals against Sevilla last weekend raised hopes among French fans that he is back to his best for the June 9-July 9 tournament.

"Zidane, a return to grace," read one headline in sports daily L'Equipe, while Tuesday's front page of the newspaper showed Zidane shouting with delight.

At 33, this year's World Cup in Germany is sure to be Zidane's last major tournament. According to the Spanish press, he has told Madrid president Florentino Perez that he'll quit soccer altogether after the tournament.

Although he'd won trophies with Juventus and Real Madrid, and the World Cup and European Championship with France, Zidane had never scored a hat trick in a 16-year career.

Michel Platini, considered France's greatest ever player alongside Zidane, managed 14 career hat tricks and his tally of 41 goals in 72 internationals is a record.

Despite being less prolific with 28 goals from 98 games, Zidane created alarm when he retired from the national team after a quarterfinal defeat to Greece at the 2004 European Championship. But with France struggling to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and following a sustained media campaign, Zidane returned with Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele for France's final four qualifying games.

Barring injury, Zidane will join Didier Deschamps, Thuram and 116-cap record holder Marcel Desailly as the only men to play 100 times for France. That should come against visiting Mexico on May 27.

However, Zidane hasn't always been a talisman at major tournaments. In 2002, France became the first defending champion to exit the first round of the World Cup _ although Zidane escaped serious censure because he was carrying an injury, the AP reported.

But at Euro 2004, Zidane was criticized for his lack of understanding with Thierry Henry. Zidane has never created a goal for Henry since the Arsenal striker made his debut in 1997.

A.M.