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Good Defense Begins at Home

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 1998, Page C7



 Franch goatender Fabien Barthez thwarted Brazil's infrequent threats with a pair of soaring saves along the goal line. (Michel Euler/AP)
SAINT-DENIS, France, July 12 — With France's World Cup celebration underway tonight at radiant Stade de France, suspended French defender Laurent Blanc had one more kiss for goalkeeper Fabien Barthez's hairless scalp.

The little smooch had become a good luck charm, and several of France's magnificent defenders had been sure to pucker up during every match. But from the first-round opener against South Africa a month ago in Marseille to tonight's 3-0 spellbinding victory over Brazil in the championship match here, luck had very little to do with the defensive lessons France taught the rest of the world the last 33 days.

Tonight's performance, against the most feared attack and the most feared player (Ronaldo) in the tournament, was simply flawless — and it was done without Blanc, who received a red card in the previous match, and for the final 22 minutes without the World Cup's classiest defender, Marcel Desailly, who departed after his second yellow card.

In the end, France allowed a grand total of two goals in seven games — a penalty kick by Denmark's Brian Laudrup in Game 3 and an early strike by Croatia's Davor Suker in the semifinals. In a sport that often lists its finest soccer players as forwards and attacking midfielders, the French showed that defense is what brings the most joy.

Brazil never found a rhythm. It patiently searched for the first 25 minutes or so, waiting for its moment to arrive. But after Zinedine Zidane scored the first of his two first-half goals and Brazil was unable to respond, it became clear that the moment might not ever arrive.

"Brazil is the best, Brazil is the strongest, Brazil is the team that has the strongest potential," France Coach Aime Jacquet said. "We needed a different approach ... and we needed to be compact."

France accomplished its improbable feat by keeping the ball away from the ailing Ronaldo, by disrupting Brazil's attack before it could shift into high gear and by permitting few scoring opportunities inside its penalty area.

Barthez, better than anyone expected throughout the tournament, thwarted Brazil's infrequent threats with a pair of soaring saves along the goal line and a cool stop on Ronaldo's only serious bid. He also dusted himself off following a spectacular collision with the Brazilian superstar in the first half, and watched Denilson's late chance skip off the top of the crossbar.

Otherwise, France's defense was in control. Bixente Lizarazu absorbed Cafu's dangerous runs on one flank and Lilian Thuram, the two-goal star of the semifinal victory over Croatia, quieted the explosive Roberto Carlos on the other. Desailly closed down Brazil's attack in the middle of the field until his ejection, and Frank Leboeuf, Blanc's replacement, provided adequate support.

France's defensive midfielders also played a critical role, with captain Didier Deschamps pestering both the scoring threat (Ronaldo) and the playmaking threat (Rivaldo) while also supporting Zidane and his team's modest attack. Deschamps got help from role players Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembeu, further frustrating Brazil but risking an inadequate attack.

On one telling sequence early in the match, Ronaldo drifted between defenders before receiving the ball. His path was clogged immediately by Desailly. Without the benefit of his stunning acceleration, Ronaldo came to a stop, and Deschamps arrived to take away the ball. Later, just before Zidane made it a two-goal lead, Leboeuf confronted Ronaldo in a one-on-one situation, stopped his penetration, then smacked the ball off the Brazilian's leg and out of bounds.

While France's defense rose, Brazil's flopped. Central defenders Aldair and Junior Baiano — who had shown signs of cracking throughout the World Cup — made several ghastly mistakes, from wayward clearances to mistimed tackles. If it wasn't for French forward Stephane Guivarc'h's sloppy finishing, the final margin would have been much worse.

Zidane was unmarked on his first goal, and Leonardo's challenge was too late. Dunga tumbled to the turf just before the second goal, allowing the free Frenchman to nod another corner kick past helpless goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel.

"The French were better," Brazil Coach Mario Zagallo conceded.

Especially on defense.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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