He Grew Up on Zidane but Worships Maradona

He was born in Marseille to parents of Algerian origin, he grew up in a poor neighborhood, has an Arab name and is a gifted midfielder. No wonder that Samir Nasri has been dubbed the "new Zidane" since he first appeared for Marseille two years ago, at the age of 17.

But Nasri, who like any self-respecting French teenager grew up on Zidane, is fed up with the comparison, flattering though it may be.

"Zidane is not my role model. He is one of the greats, I love him, but my role model is Diego Maradona," says Nasri, who faces Israel with France's U-21 team in the return leg of their European Championship qualifying playoff in Herzliya tomorrow.

The championship's official title may be the European Under 21 Championship, but 21 refers to maximum age competing players can be at the start of the year in which the qualifying tournament begins. Thus with France, as with other teams, several players have already reached the ripe old age of 22. To be 19 and included in the under 21 team of a country like France, which is packed with talent, you have to be something special.

Nasri is used to hanging out with an older crowd. At the age of five, he was already playing in his neighborhood with kids twice his age and teaching them a trick or two. Nasri's neighborhood, La Gavotte Peyret, is home to immigrants from Morocco , Algier, Tunisia, Cameroon, Senegal and in recent years Cambodia, and as one French journalist describes it, "there isn't anyone there whose mother tongue is French."

One of Nasri's neighbors persuaded his parents that he was wasting his time playing on the streets and by the age of six he was registered with Pennes Mirabeau. Within two years he had been spotted by Marseille talent scouts Freddy Assolen and Roger Giovanni.

"We don't usually look at players of that age," Giovanni said in an interview last year, "but the guy that recommended him was so enthusiastic that we had to go along. When we saw him, there was no doubt in our minds. The first thing we did was to find out where his parents lived. The second was to persuade them to let him sign for us."

After rising through the ranks at Marseille, Nasri has proved himself in the club's senior team even though he has been overshadowed by Zidane's official successor in the French national team, Franck Ribery. Last season he came on in most matches as a substitute; this season he has already started in four out of eight matches and in the other four he came on as a substitute.

Against Toulouse in the last round of league play, Nasri was given the reigns after Ribery missed the match through injury, and in the words of French sports writer Christian Roda, he "he passed the ball like a genius and showed leadership rare in a player of his age."

Nasri still hasn't been given the job of taking Marseille's free kicks, but it is only a matter of time before he bends the ball into the net like he does in training. Ivory Coast's Abdoulaye Meite, who transfered over the summer to Bolton, describes Nasri as "a player defenders hate. He is an incredible passer of the ball and a brilliant free-kick taker. I'm glad that I played with him and not against him. If he keeps on like he is now, he will be a big star."

Nasri still lives with his parents, keeps in close touch with his neighborhood friends and often visits relatives in La Castellane, another poor quarter of Marseille, where Zidane grew up. His cousin's neighbor, a close childhood friend of Zidane, would always tell Nasri that the legend was following his career.

"I always follow Marseille and, of course, I follow Nasri, Zidane said in a recent interview. "To achieve what he has at his age is fantastic. He is a great player and he is smart. He will go far.