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Originally published Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 6:33 AM

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France still looking for Zidane-like figure

Six years after Zinedine Zidane played his last match, France is still looking for someone to replace him.

AP Sports Writer

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DONETSK, Ukraine —

Six years after Zinedine Zidane played his last match, France is still looking for someone to replace him.

Zidane's absence was highlighted in France's 1-1 draw with England at the European Championship. The French were timid early in the Group D match, and were unable to turn long spells of pressure into goals.

"Was it fear? Was it because of what was at stake? Perhaps. Collectively and individually we need to improve," France coach Laurent Blanc said. "We didn't want to take risks and that's the surest way to get punished."

What France really seems to lack is someone who can provide a moment of magic, just like Zidane used to do when he helped the team win the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. However, he was given a red card for head-butting an opponent in the 2006 World Cup final loss to Italy in the final match of his career.

Since then, France has failed to win a match at two major tournaments, Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. The team went on strike at the World Cup in South Africa, leading to a massive rift with the fans and decimating the confidence of the young players left to pick up the pieces.

Although the team was revived under Blanc and has been unbeaten in its last 22 matches, it has already started to make excuses after opening Euro 2012 with a draw against the English.

"Unfortunately, we came up against an England team that refused to play," said left back Patrice Evra, who compared England to the Chelsea team that won the Champions League by frustrating Bayern Munich.

Said Blanc: "You can't settle into your normal game against a team that refuses to play."

But France's normal game is nothing like it used to be. The team's best player, striker Karim Benzema, is still only 24 years old and remains a peripheral, sometimes withdrawn figure. Nothing like the presence that Zidane used to be.

Three players still remain from the Zidane era and the 2006 World Cup final, Florent Malouda, Alou Diarra and Franck Ribery. But the weight of failure from the last two tournaments still seems to affect the younger members of the current team.

Samir Nasri's reaction after scoring France's goal against England was to shout "Shut your mouth" at a French journalist and then make a "shhhhhhh" gesture with his finger over his mouth. The journalist had been critical of him the day before.

The next match will be against co-host Ukraine on Friday, and it will be another chance for the team to stamp its authority on the game from the outset.

"We're aware of our ability now," Malouda said. "If only we could show it straight from kick off."

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