As far as most people on the planet with an interest in football are concerned, one image crystallises the last World Cup final. It is the jaw-dropping sight of Zinedine Zidane, the finest player of his generation, burrowing his head into Marco Materazzi as a bull aims at a provocative matador.

Nearly four years have passed since that moment. Florent Malouda has still not shaken off the emotions of that hot night in Berlin. His senses heighten as he rakes over the memories. Like the majority of players on the pitch who were focused elsewhere at the time, he was suddenly caught up in a whirl of confusion.

What the hell happened? "I was wondering what was going on because nobody understood," he recalls. "I asked the masseur: Did they use the video to see what happened? Afterwards, the night was really terrible. It was really hard to watch the Italians lift the trophy." As Malouda churned it all over in his mind later that night, he could not sleep at all.

As it happens – and this gives you an insight into the man's genial nature – Zidane's eruption is not the memory that first springs to Malouda's mind when he thinks of the 2006 World Cup final. It is the picture as he emerged from the confines and pent-up pressures and expectations of the tunnel.

There, right in front of his eyes – close enough to caress – was the World Cup itself. Just remembering how he felt brings such light to his eyes he looks as if he just might levitate. "They put the World Cup between the two teams. I was just walking past this cup and it was so wonderful, so brilliant. I was just thinking, wow, this is the real one. I wanted to kiss it!" He hoots with laughter.

As Malouda touches down in South Africa with a French squad that has endured a choppy ride since they finished the last tournament as runners-up, he feels desperate to get close to the World Cup again.

"Afterwards I realised we did a great campaign but it is really unfinished business," he says. "You want to take revenge after a game like that. When you are so close it is really difficult. When I look at the games I played I was proud of what I did. But I will try to be stronger than that to win that trophy one day."

The critics don't fancy France's chances this time. A turbulent qualification campaign, friction sparking around the coach, Raymond Domenech, and a squad that lacks the experience of recent attempts doesn't add up to universal optimism.

Malouda is not the type to hide when trouble appears. He admits it has not been the happiest of camps. "The problem is, after what we did in 2006 – and of course there was a great generation in 1998 and 2000 – expectations are very high. And the Euro in 2008 was a disaster. So when you are in a bad situation everything is coming out, and people are pointing the finger. The World Cup is really close and honestly we have a lot of problems to fix. When there is tension, when there is high-pressure games, you need characters. You need people to come out and say 'I will take responsibility'."

Malouda talks about the example of 2006. In the build-up France were in disarray, until two of their grandest figures were persuaded to come out of retirement. Zidane and Lilian Thuram returned armed with cures for most of Les Bleus' ills.

"When they came back they took everything on their shoulders," Malouda recalls. "They were real leaders, and we just had to follow. When Zidane arrived it was a strange atmosphere like God was coming on earth. The moment he came back the confidence turned around and we felt like we were the best in the world."

But who can do that for the 2010 generation? This time no old warriors marched back through the gates of Clairefontaine. There was not even a place in the squad for Patrick Vieira. Rumours Claude Makelele would be convinced to come back at the age of 37 were a mirage.

Malouda admits to being "surprised" at the lack of experienced voices. "Honestly we have a lot of problems. We have to talk about a lot of things. But for that you need someone to take the first step. Guys like Vieira and Makelele who can take the lead. If they are not there, somebody has to do it."

In the absence of others Malouda, a father of four who will turn 30 two days after France play their opening game against Uruguay, is ready. He has already proved he is not afraid to speak up for what he believes in. He did so at the beginning of the campaign. He was dropped, and it has taken nearly two years of excellent performances for his club to work his way back into the regular starting line-up.

"I said if we lost it is because we had problems in the team," he reflects. "I spoke about the management. I took my responsibility. I paid the consequences. But if I have to do it again I will do it. But I need to be followed by people who will express themselves. More people have to say what they think."

That was a feature of France's golden generation, and it was no coincidence that the entire 1998 World Cup-winning squad played abroad at some stage of their careers. Since then, there has been a feeling among aspiring French players that you have to gain foreign experience to prove yourself as a truly big player. Malouda had that impulse, which is why he was only too happy to sign for Chelsea three years ago after a prolonged period of domestic success with Lyon.

"To bring something to your national team you have to get experience of what is the best in the world, to learn from other leagues and bring that back," he explains.

During his spell at Stamford Bridge he feels he has learned how to be more present, more involved, more competitive as a player and as a man. Tellingly, he didn't just win the Players' Player of the Year award as voted for by Chelsea's squad, he won it by a landslide.

He is thrilled by an unprecedented number of goals and assists this term (even his best season in Ligue 1 never came close), which played a big part in Chelsea winning their first double.

"When I arrived from Lyon people were expecting a left-winger exclusively. In fact I am a more complete player, a real team player. I did not come here for the glory. I came to contribute wherever necessary. This year I have played many different roles, even as a left-back. In the big games I took responsibilities.

"People had to get to know me and get used to the way I am. And I needed time to show what I can do. I came into a squad that had won a lot of titles with José Mourinho. To arrive in a team that has had great success but was on a down period, people expect a lot from you. I had to be patient. You know, I had five managers here and each time at the beginning they were trying things before I had their full confidence. I am really happy it is happening now and people can show me that love and affection the same as my team-mates."

He could not be happier with his club life, and has high expectations that Chelsea are in position to enjoy a period of sustained success.

"Now we are in a situation where the team needs new players, and wants to bring up players from the academy, where there has been big investment in really talented youngsters," he says. "It is a kind of transition. And if we do it well, I really believe we can make a big dynasty and maybe be the next Manchester United."

Malouda is desperate to bring some of the positive vibes he experienced this season at Chelsea into the French camp. He is also acutely aware that France needs not just encouraging performances – hardly helped by a 1-0 friendly defeat to China on Friday – but some constructive PR to repair the damage that was done by the controversy that engulfed their qualification.

After the notorious Thierry Henry handball, which decided the play-off against the Republic of Ireland, France's players feel they need to show a more positive face. "Of course we do," Malouda says.

"We need to remember what happened and be stronger. I don't think we need to be ashamed because these kind of things are part of the game. I don't think Henry is a cheater. I won't blame him. I think we have to be behind our captain as a team and as a nation. I don't think if another nation did it they would say, 'No, we don't want to go to the World Cup, we will give our place back'. That's a kind of hypocrisy.

"But not only because of the handball, but because of the whole [poor] qualification campaign, we have to show something different. And what we have shown in Euro 2008 wasn't France. Yes, the group was hard, but you can't go out at the first stage the way we played. We played without identity."

So how do you change identity when the players are the same, the coach is the same, the ideas are the same, the atmosphere is the same?

"You have to find your identity again. In a football club when things are going wrong you go back to basics. The basics of France are this: it has always been a team tactically well disciplined, hard to play against, defending well, with good counter-attack and fast players up front. We have Henry, [Nicolas] Anelka, [Franck] Ribéry, Malouda, so we have reason to be confident. But the basics are defending well and discipline. The reference for this World Cup right now is Spain, and even when you look at Brazil, it is not like when you are watching old tapes and they were just passing the ball and having fun."

Malouda enthuses about "the new model" of football, and reckons France do not have to rewind too far to find it. In 2006, they played with solid defensive foundations and quick, creative attacking.

He is keen to remind people how France, playing that way, beat Spain 3-1, beat Brazil 1-0, beat Portugal 1-0 and drew 1-1 with Italy in the final, only falling on penalties. "That's our identity and we have to get back to that," he concludes.

Malouda brings the conversation back to Zidane. The best player he ever played with. "I remember the game against Brazil and with his first touch it was as if he was telling Brazil: this is my day. There is no way you can compete with me. That was great. I remember even in training watching every move that he was doing. It was not the same game we were playing. I was studying his touch and trying to do the same. But no. It's only him."

It was a little heartbreaking for Malouda to see a player he holds in such reverence end a magical career with such violent complexity. "But I could never blame him," he adds. "When I think about Zidane I don't think about that, I don't care about that, and honestly I don't think he cares about it either."

Does a player never fully recover from losing a final like that? "Of course. You have to think, next time I will be there, don't be scared, change things, take responsibilities, and make sure you will be the winner."

© Guardian News and Media 2010

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