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In Paris, Champagne For the Champions

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 1998; Page E1

PARIS, July 13 — A French public that was slow in recognizing the championship quality of its national soccer team clogged the streets of this city so thoroughly today that an open-top, double-decker bus carrying the new World Cup title-holders team could only inch along an eight-lane boulevard and eventually had to veer off its planned route.

Like a big ship plowing through a canal, the bus conveyed the French team through a flag-waving, fist-pumping, shouting mass of humanity estimated at 600,000 by the police. The players participated in this gloriously plodding parade along the famous Champs-Elysees this afternoon, about 17 hours after their 3-0, upset victory over defending champion Brazil in the final at Stade de France in Saint-Denis.

The players were rewarded with a turnout that hasn't been seen in Paris since the days just after World War II — or at least since the early morning hours today when the city initially celebrated France's first World Cup championship.

Wearing identical white T-shirts with the golden World Cup trophy on the front and "98" on the back, the players carried a replica of their holy grail and waved, swayed and sang nearly as much as their fans did.

Among the popular chants were one that went "Zizou for president!" — a tribute to star midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who scored two goals Sunday — and one involving the score of Sunday's game, which represented Brazil's worst loss in any World Cup qualifying or finals game.

The crowd began assembling for the parade at about 1 p.m., reserving places behind barricades that had been erected on the sidewalks. By 3, the barricades were being ignored and the eight-lane boulevard had been cut to three lanes. By 4:15 , when the players finally could be glimpsed down the adjacent Avenue Montaigne, the Champs-Elysees had ceased to be a roadway. It was densely covered with fans clad in red, white and blue for the mile-plus from the Arc de Triomphe, the famous landmark at the western end, to the Place de la Concorde, the square at the other.

The parade seemed the perfect completion to a splendid World Cup run for the French team, which won all seven of its matches, made amends for failing to qualify for the tournament in 1990 and 1994, and stirred passions in the home fans that had been dormant for years.

"We fulfilled every schoolboy's dream," backup goalkeeper Bernard Lama said after the match. "The history of France and the football world has changed forever."

Perhaps the only lowlight to the team's victory came in the early morning hours today. A 44-year-old woman lost control of her car on the Champs-Elysees, driving into a mass of people and injuring 150. Eleven suffered serious, but not critical, injuries.

Today's celebration brought no major disturbances. Most fans celebrated respectfully, singing and dancing and pounding on drums, but refraining from unruly behavior.

Wearing a French flag like a cape, striker Thierry Henry sat in the front of the bus along with midfielder Emmanuel Petit, midfielder Christian Karembeu and defender Lilian Thuram. Lining the back of the bus were by defender Laurent Blanc and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez; the rest of the team was scattered throughout.

Barthez perhaps best symbolized the French team. Considered only an adequate player at the start of the World Cup, he played his way onto the FIFA World Cup All-Star team by allowing just two goals in 684 minutes over the seven games — one during the run of play, one on a penalty kick. Called "far from a perfect choice" to be the starting goalkeeper by one pre-tournament magazine, the distinctive, bald-headed, wide-eyed keeper seemed to grow more and more confident as the matches went on. Today, he is a national hero.

"This was the greatest evening of my life," Barthez said Sunday. "I still can't believe it. The 3-0 score line clearly displays how much we dominated the game."

Praised by newspapers today, the French team struggled during pre-World Cup exhibitions and this tournament, in which they lost Zidane for two games in the middle and defensive leader Blanc for the final because of red card suspensions. Even in the final, defensive mainstay Marcel Desailly was ejected in the 68th minute. None of it mattered.

Before the World Cup, Coach Aime Jacquet was routinely criticized by local papers for his bland coaching style. Jacquet, who said Sunday night he would never forgive his detractors, was received today on the Champs-Elysees with signs such as the one that said: "Aime, Merci" (Thanks, Aime).

The front-page headline of the national sports daily L'Equipe today read: "For Eternity."

Which is how the players seem to view the victory that made them the first team since Argentina in 1978 to win a World Cup title on home soil.

"It's the most important match of my life," said Zidane. "The only thing I know is that the Cup will stay in France for the next four years. We will be celebrating."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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