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Zidane visits 'infatuated' Algeria

December 11, 2006 18:43 IST

Zinedine Zidane flew in to Algeria on Monday to inspect charity projects on a visit warmly welcomed by a nation that has long seen the French footballer of Algerian ancestry as an icon of success.

"Zizou", as he is known in France, smiled but made no comment in the airport building as security men wrestled to keep a shoving, shouting and swearing pack of 150 photographers, television camera crews and reporters at bay.

Witnesses said Zidane, accompanied by his mother and father, was welcomed by Sports and Youth Minister Yahia Guiddoum and Employment and National Solidarity Minister Djamal Ould Abbes.

He was whisked away in a black Mercedes towards Sidi Daoud village 80 km (50 miles) east of the capital where he has funded a relief project in an area hit by an earthquake in 2003.

"Zidane's arrival is an event, and stirs up Algeria's infatuation (for him)," commented El Watan daily.

Security for his visit, which is expected to end on Friday, will be especially tight following a bomb attack on a bus carrying foreign oil workers in an Algiers suburb on Sunday that killed one Algerian and wounded nine foreigners.

It was the first armed attack on expatriates in many years.

The former French soccer captain will inaugurate a project donating medical equipment that was funded from proceeds of a charity football game in France.

The earthquake in the Boumerdes region of northern Algeria in 2003 killed 2,300 people, injured more than 10,000 and made at least 100,000 homeless.

Zidane, widely regarded as the finest footballer of his generation, retired from soccer after being sent off in July's World Cup final for head-butting Italy's Marco Materazzi. Italy won the final after a penalty shoot-out.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika described him at the time as "a World Cup demi-god" and the best footballer in the world.

The match was Zidane's last in competitive football.

Zidane's Algerian parents moved in 1962 to the southern French city of Marseille, where Zidane grew up.

He has rarely visited Algeria, a country of 33 million which is slowly pulling itself out of 14 years of Islamist-linked violence that cost the lives of up to 200,000 people.

But Zidane is seen by many here as a symbol of hope in a country where the jobless rate among people under 30 is estimated to be about 70 percent.

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