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Jacquet Restores Gallic Glory

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 1998; Page C1

CLAIREFONTAINE, France, July 2 — France Coach Aime Jacquet, the director of the most recent renaissance in Europe, looked the part today. Beginning his news conference with folded arms and baggy eyes, Jacquet quickly shifted into a high-volume commentary accompanied by elaborate and sweeping arm gestures. Merely trying to make a few points, Jacquet looked capable of conducting the Paris Orchestra.

That has been the essence of Jacquet's job since he took over the French national soccer team in 1993 — after France's failure to qualify for the World Cup for the second straight time.

This slender, gray-haired, bespectacled man inherited the task of shepherding a group of mostly moderate stars back to the center of soccer's biggest stage. Qualifying for the '98 World Cup proved uncomplicated: The French received a free pass as the host nation. So far, the tournament itself has been a breeze; the French team, which will face Italy in Friday's quarterfinal in St. Denis, has won four straight matches to get to this point.

Jacquet's team already has restored respect and reinspired interest in soccer in France, which slogged through an eight-year depression. But true national confidence? Not yet.

Now that French fans — many of whom swore off soccer after the disappointments of 1990 and 1994 — are paying attention again, the question is: When does disappointment strike?

The French long ago grew accustomed to unfulfilled hopes. The most famous French soccer player in history, Michel Platini, twice led France to the semifinals, in 1982 and 1986. Those performances marked the peak of the French team's prosperity. They were followed by the disasters of 1990 and 1994.

"What has happened so far is fantastic," Jacquet, 57, said. "It could become fabulous."

As in recent matches, Jacquet likely will deploy a team Friday that lacks all of its working parts. Twenty-year-old striker Thierry Henry, who leads France with three goals, probably won't start because of a sprained left ankle. Jacquet said today he will determine his lineup the morning of the game.

Returning to the field will be star midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who missed the last two matches because of a red card he earned against Saudi Arabia. Without Zidane, France defeated Denmark, another quarterfinalist, in its final group match, and beat Paraguay in Sunday's round-of-16 game.

The French players seemed to rally without Zidane, providing an emotional performance against Paraguay that ended with defender Laurent Blanc's overtime goal. That game seemed to display Jacquet's guiding principle, that success follows the whole team and not any individual.

Asked about the importance of Zidane's return, Jacquet raised his voice, stating emphatically — and then repeating the phrase — that "this is the team of France." Jacquet, whose contract expires after the World Cup, strictly avoided praising any one player on either team. When asked about Italy's Roberto Baggio, who apparently again will sit on the bench in favor of Alessandro Del Piero, Jacquet shrugged and said if Baggio doesn't start, "someone better than Baggio will."

"I don't really want to talk about any one player," Jacquet said. "We all know [Zidane] is an exceptional player with exceptional technical qualities, but we as a team have to help him express himself best. If we lose, it will not be his fault, and if we win, it will not be thanks just to him. We are all together as one."

Henry's absence seemingly would be a significant problem, as his goal-scoring has helped fill what was considered the team's weakest area entering the tournament. Yet perhaps Jacquet's greatest gift has been finding ways to compensate for holes and weak points. The French team's exceptional defense, led by Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Blanc, has provided much of that compensation, allowing just one goal in the tournament.

Eleven of the 22 French players have played or play for Italian first division teams. Among the current Italian leaguers are Zidane, Desailly, Thuram, and midfielders Youri Djorkaeff and Didier Deschamps. "We know their players well," Deschamps said.

The French will have either the advantage — or added pressure — provided by a home crowd of 80,000.

"France has to make a good showing, because they're playing in their stadium and in front of their public," Italy's Fabio Cannavaro said earlier this week. "They will need to play aggressively, and that will leave them open to attack."

History might present a mental barrier for the French, who are well aware of Italy's past.

"The longer they last, the more dangerous they become," Jacquet said.

As for the French, usually the longer they last the more likely they will lose.

Jacquet has something else in mind.

"I'll see you again Saturday," he told a roomful of reporters. "And we will talk about football."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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