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Convert to Islam changes French mindset: Rebel Ribéry strides from sink estate to brink of greatness

Rejected by the best French clubs as a troubled youngster, the mercurial midfielder is now filling the void left by Zinedine Zidane's retirement from football, writes John Lichfield

Veterans in the crowd at Hampden Park may have a strange sense of déjà vu when Scotland play France on Saturday. The shortness of stature; the bandy-legged aggression; the twinkling feet; the off-field truculence and charm: Franck Ribéry could be a Scottish winger, or midfielder, from the 1950s or 1960s.

Unfortunately for Scotland, he was brought up in a sink estate in Boulogne-sur-Mer, not in a Lanarkshire pit village or the back streets of Glasgow. Ribéry will be playing for Les Bleus, not the dark blues, tomorrow.

In Scotland, it seems, they don't make them like Ribéry any more. Imagine Gordon Strachan, shorn of the bright red hair; or Archie Gemmill with brutal-looking facial scarring. (The scars have a relatively banal explanation. Petit Franck was thrown through the windscreen of his parents' car in a road accident when he was two years old.)

Ribéry, 23, one of the revelations of the World Cup in Germany, is also an unusual kind of footballer in France these days. He is the first young player of French, rather than African or Caribbean or North African, origin, to become a star forward in the France team since David Ginola and Eric Cantona more than a decade ago. Like Didier Drogba, he is not so much a product as a reject of the prolific youth academy system of the large French clubs. His route to the top took him on a detour via the French equivalent of the Nationwide Conference, and into the Turkish league with Galatasaray.

Even before he went to Turkey, he had become a devout Muslim, converting to the religion of Wahiba, his French wife of Moroccan origin. He raises his hands to Allah before every match: something that goes down fine in Istanbul or Marseilles but was less appreciated during his brief periods in Metz and Brest.

Until last summer Ribéry had not played for France. He impressed in Germany as an exuberant winger or striker, ready to dribble or pass his way through the opposition. He has now taken over the departed Zinedine Zidane's position in the France team as the wandering playmaker, just behind the strikers.

Pursued post-Germany by Lyon and by Arsenal, Ribéry remained reluctantly at Marseilles. He is the main reason why OM (second in La Ligue to OL) have exceeded modest expectations this season.

At club and national level, he has revealed a new dimension to his game: intelligence and cunning, as well as skill and aggression. What fan, or manager, could ask for more? Some people in the French game had assumed that Ribéry was mostly a head-down, headstrong footballer, good at provocative dribbles and easily provoked himself. Ribéry's first professional coach says that he always knew better - even though he fired him as a 16-year-old.

Jean-Luc Vandamme, who brought him to Lille's youth academy at 13 in 1996, said: "Franck has great anticipation. He analyses three times faster than others. On the pitch, he has all the problems worked out while others are still pondering. People think that he's thick but that's pure stupidity. He is anything but. He has a practical intelligence, like all the great players."

Ribéry's undeserved reputation for being not too bright goes back to his expulsion from the Lille football academy - by Vandamme - in 1999. He was kicked out not because of his football skills but because he refused to try in the normal school-work which Lille - like other French clubs - insisted upon. He also fought like a cat with the other kids.

Another early coach, Jose Pereira, says: "Even a street lamp would have seen that Franck was a very good player but you had to watch him like a pan of milk on the boil. He was a kid who had grown up in the street." He was actually brought up, not in the street, but like a whole generation of French youngsters, at the foot of a dilapidated block of flats. Ribéry lived as a child in the notorious Chemin-Vert estate on the edge of Boulogne. His maternal language is not classical French but the northern patois called "ch'ti", which is a mixture of French and Flemish. It was in Chemin-Vert that he met his future wife, who persuaded him to convert to Islam.

After Lille, there followed a series of zig-zag moves, back to Boulogne, to Alès, Brest and Metz. It seemed that Franck had lost his way. In fact, the moves were forced more by contract wrangles and the financial problems of his clubs than failings on the part of Ribéry.

He was a great success at Galatasaray, where the fans called him "Ferraribery" for his speed. He was an immediate fan favourite when he returned to France with Marseilles at the start of last season.

Ribéry is an elusive interviewee. Sometimes he speaks fluently, as all French footballers seem to do. At other times, he shuns the press. During the World Cup he was once seen passing though the "Mixed Zone", where press interviews take place, with a mobile phone clamped protectively to his ear. The telephone was upside down.

On the subject of Islam, Ribéry is definitely not talkative. "As a kid, I spent all my time with Muslims. It is my choice. No one told me to do it. I prefer to keep my reasons to myself." On football, and his ambitions in football, Ribéry is less taciturn.

Asked whether he was always confident that he would reach the top, he said: "Of course not. And I wasn't the only one. Nobody thought I could do it. But I worked and I started to ask questions of myself. I still do. What has happened to me shows that anything can happen in football, that you can come from a long way down to realise your dreams. Now I feel, at last, that I am living my life. I play how I feel. I don't have a set way of playing. I get going, looking to create danger."

Philippe Goursat, who helped Ribéry to recover from his early setbacks when he went to non-League Brest, says that the young Franck was a "lost soul" but "knew a helping hand when he saw one". "He was a gentle clown, a toughie with a soft heart," Goursat said. "Now he is on the verge of becoming one of the greats of French football."

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