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South Africa Is Left With a French Impression

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, June 13, 1998; Page B1

MARSEILLE — More stunning sports-stadium settings must exist on the face of the earth, but this evening in the din of roaring songs and chants for both France and South Africa from 60,000 fans in this Mediterranean port city, none came immediately to mind. The sleekly remodeled Stade de Velodrome sits surrounded by ancient hills. Nestled in this beauty, the host team of the 16th World Cup and a country making its first appearance in the tournament began play under a golden sun that had plenty of light still to give even though it was 9 o'clock.

The scene alone would have been thoroughly chilling, but in addition a frigid wind blew from the north toward the sea, the mistral in a fury that reached an official recording of 70 miles an hour shortly before the game. When the sun went down, it felt like the Winter Olympics. But neither team would be deterred despite wearing short pants, and for a while there was suspense, which helped keep everyone warm and French fans worried. Their team had honor to lose and their feelings to be hurt if they couldn't beat a newcomer. They also risked turning a passionate soccer city against them.

Since the French had not hosted a World Cup in 60 years or played in the finals since 1986, they had a right to feel nervous. But by 3-0, the mood of the country soared and the spirit surrounding the World Cup saved, for now. This was especially true here in a city that takes immense pride in soccer's role in its history and its present. Olympique Marseille is one of the two most famous soccer clubs in the country, along with Paris Saint-Germain, and French Coach Aime Jacquet described Marseille Thursday as "a place with a real passion for football."

Six members of France's World Cup team play or played for Olympique Marseille, and France's top player, Zinedine Zidane, grew up in a poor area not far from the stadium. Born of Algerian immigrants, Zidane left home at the age of 13 to begin his career. He often is compared with Michel Platini, France's greatest player and co-leader of the France '98 organizing committee. So Jacquet found it fitting that the host team play its first game here — as long as it was able to win.

Jacquet, sounding like an American coach, urged the French fans during a news conference Thursday to make enough noise to play a part in the contest as "12th man." He seemed edgy as he called for support, and all day French fans seemed edgy, too, as they waited for the night game. Cafes were filled, but the talk was about how the French team would do. When game time finally arrived, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was in the crowd. The pressure was on.

The South Africans in the stadium, in contrast, brought more the feeling of festivity than the business of winning, having celebrated most of Thursday night with songs and chants and flag-waving in the old section of the city. They marched up to the elliptical stands of the Velodrome and, once inside, kept on cheering in the wind that all day had bent small trees half way to the ground and stirred whitecaps in the sea.

But South Africa lacked the talent that France had in abundance. Zidane and his teammates responded. Certainly Zidane had prayed for the successful homecoming he enjoyed. He dominated in midfield, chasing down loose balls, keeping his teammates on the offense by leading. Being baldish, Zidane, 25, looks older than he is. He appears to have aged in the past few years; in tapes of game action not that long ago, he had all his hair. Zidane is not as fluid as many of the game's greats, but he is quick and sees the whole field. The crowd reacted each time he touched the ball.

"I am at the peak of my career and this is my time to win something," he said recently. "I have learned a lot in the last two years since I moved to Juventus. I have mainly learned in Italy how to be a winner and to have the will always to win. I feel stronger now than I ever have before. I want to be the real leader of the team and I am ready. I believe we can do very well."

French fans, concerned because their team recently had experienced trouble scoring, would have been content with 1-0. But their side proved so dominant that by late in the game, when South Africa seemed to feel a chill, the score was roughly the equivalent of 73-0 in American football. The French also may have found what they were looking for, some good young scorers. Christophe Dugarry, 24, and Thierry Henry, 20, came through. In between their work, South Africa's Pierre Issa got an "own" goal that sapped South Africa's spirit.

"We owe them a lot of respect," said the Frenchman Philippe Troussier, South Africa's coach. "We tried to disturb them somewhat, but we lost this match quite heavily. The French team is very well organized, and it showed the difference between a young team like ours and an experienced team like theirs."

Jacquet was relaxed after the game. "This was a tremendous type of football," he said. "We fulfilled our hopes for one game. This is just the beginning."

A blending of talent, fan support, a home field and a weak opponent all played to France's advantage tonight. With Denmark and Saudi Arabia ahead in first-round play, France should have no trouble advancing — maybe even beyond the round of 16. As Jacquet said: "Our spirit and our potential and a little luck means we can achieve something very special."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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