France's Ribery Steps To the Fore

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006

BERLIN, July 7 -- When the French national anthem, " La Marseillaise ," is playing Sunday evening at Olympic Stadium before the World Cup final begins, a television camera will glide in front of the line of players and transmit images of some of the sport's most recognizable faces.

Zidane. Henry. Barthez. Thuram. Ribery . . . Ribery?

Until five weeks ago, few outside of France had ever heard of Franck Ribery, let alone recognized him and his scarred face.

But in a rags-to-riches rise on soccer's grandest stage, the scrappy 23-year-old forward has become as identifiable as his celebrated teammates and has come to symbolize France's reemergence following its winless, scoreless flop four years ago.

"What has happened to me shows that anything can happen in football, that you can come from a long way down to realize your dreams," said Ribery, who, despite not making his international debut until late May, is expected to start again Sunday night when Les Bleus meet three-time champion Italy in the championship.

"This has all happened to me so quickly but I feel, at last, I am living my life," he said at a news conference at France's training camp in the German town of Hamelin early this week.

The last time France appeared in the final -- eight years ago, when it defeated Brazil for its first title -- Ribery was celebrating with schoolmates in the streets of Boulogne-sur-Mer, a rough port city on the English Channel.

These days, he is a fixture on the flank for the national team. He looks to his left and sees his boyhood idol, the incomparable Zinedine Zidane, and glances forward and sees France's graceful striker, Thierry Henry.

Ribery has brought energy and pace to a veteran lineup, his fearless runs causing panic among opposing defenders and creating regular scoring opportunities. He also contributed a goal of his own in the round of 16 against favored Spain, dashing into space to collect Patrick Vieira's through-ball to score the equalizer during a 3-1 victory.

"Franck is every defender's worst nightmare, always looking to hit them where it hurts and not giving them a moment's peace," teammate and defender Lilian Thuram said. "When teams are as well drilled as they are here in Germany, having a player like Franck in your side can make all the difference. There's no limit to what he can achieve in the game."

Other than his exciting style, Ribery's most recognizable feature is the scar that stretches from his forehead, down the right side of his face and to his goatee -- the result of being thrown through a windshield during an auto accident when he was 2.

Life on the field was not smooth, either. He was expelled from Lille's soccer academy -- where young players learn the game and attend standard classes -- because of poor study habits. He eventually found his way to the professional level, but wallowed in the lower divisions for years.

Ribery finally broke though in August 2004 with Metz and soon found himself at Turkish power Galatasaray. A contract dispute ended his stay there and he joined Marseille, already his sixth club. He caught the eye of national team coach Raymond Domenech, as well as French champion Lyon and several English clubs, all of whom began pursuing him.

Named to the World Cup roster without having played in an international game, Ribery showed his value during three tuneup matches when he entered in the second half. When France opened the tournament against Switzerland, Ribery was in the starting lineup, a wing in Domenech's 4-5-1 formation.

"I play how I feel," said Ribery, whose blue-collar style and background prompted Rag Street, a rap group from his home town, to compose a song in his honor. "I don't have a set way of playing. I get going, looking to create danger."

On Sunday he will be confronted by an Italy team that has yielded only one goal in six matches and has shut down some of the tournament's most imposing attackers.

Regardless of the outcome, however, Ribery and France have already accomplished more than anyone thought possible.

"A few weeks ago, I didn't think things would turn out as well as they have for myself and the team," Ribery said. "But here we are. . . . We'll see what happens next."

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