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Les Bleus Bask Coolly in France's Glow

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, July 10, 1998; Page C1

 French defender Lilian Thuram (left) speaks at a news conference next to coach Aime Jacquet in Clairefontaine.
(Charles Platiau/Reuters)
CLAIREFONTAINE, France — The day after France's greatest soccer victory, the team rested. Les Bleus seemed almost serene Thursday morning at the national football center, the team's training site about 30 miles southwest of Paris. Zinedine Zidane, the usually serious-looking star midfielder who plays professionally for Juventus in Italy, smiled easily and spoke quietly of how touched he was by the outpouring of interest and support from the French people. "I have never seen anything like this in France," Zidane told a group of mostly French writers who had made it to the secluded wooded area on a narrow country road.

Midfielder Emmanuel Petit, pleased like the others to be playing Brazil on Sunday for the World Cup, expressed his "amazement" that so many good things have happened for him recently. "In the last 18 months," he said, "we won the French championship with Monaco, and then after I went to Arsenal we won the double [England's Premier League championship and the F.A. Cup tournament]. Now this." As the French sports daily L'Equipe headlined: "Quel Bonheur!" ["What Happiness!"]

It was cloudy and chilly at the camp, an overcast day like many others in the Paris area during the past two weeks. But it was different in that now the French had won six games, just one short of what it takes to win the Cup. The camp was the eye of a country-wide storm of celebration. After France's 2-1 semifinal victory over Croatia on Wednesday night, the French went out to celebrate: 300,000 on the Champs-Elysees, 25,000 in Bordeaux, 10,000 in Marseille. In the camp there were no raised voices, no raucous laughter. The players, each one, seemed to be experiencing almost an inner satisfaction, the kind that can come from, say, winning a long race or watching the sun go down at the end of an exhausting but enjoyable day.

"Brazil is the greatest team," said Aime Jacquet, France's coach. "We are a surprise."

Les Bleus have not won the World Cup but they have reached a new plateau in French soccer history, eclipsing even the teams led by their greatest player, Michel Platini, in the late 1970s and '80s. Jacquet, a slender man who on this day was without his trademark black notebook in which he writes observations during games, shook his clasped hands animatedly as he recited the various emotions he and the players had been experiencing: "the great difficulty" of the Croatia game — "the tactics, the suspense, the tension" — followed by the "explosion of joy" in the Stade de France when the game ended and "everyone realized we won," and now the "good feeling."

It's safe to say that the French team believes it has succeeded, for itself and for the host country. L'Equipe expressed that sentiment in a headline today: "This immense performance already makes their tournament a complete success." Starting Friday, it will be up to Jacquet to change that feeling or the French surely won't have a chance Sunday against Brazil. As it is now, the players and many of their followers believe that playing at home will help. Many French believe their team has a small chance, but a chance nonetheless, to lift the Cup.

The fans know that the French attackers haven't done their jobs, and it was Lilian Thuram, a defender, who came up and scored not once, but twice against Croatia. "It was 200 percent luck," said Thuram, who had never struck goal for the national team, much less two goals in a game. Thuram, 26, who had considered being a priest, is a stalwart of the defense, and delivered so spectacularly and unexpectedly that he put much of the French nation in an uncharacteristically buoyant mood.

"This will be the team with the best defense going against the team with the best offense," Petit said. Clearly, Brazil's Ronaldo-inspired offense is superior to France's; France's strength is its defense while Brazil sometimes suffers under siege, even with Cafu, who will be returning after a red-card suspension.

"It's a great honor to play Brazil," Jacquet said. But he also knew what Brazil Coach Mario Zagallo had said after watching France win the right to play his team. "It's wonderful. It will be the greatest match possible, the one everyone has been dreaming of," Zagallo said. "But be careful; Brazil is not playing this final just for the fun of it. We're playing to win."

One French player was as quiet and emotional as his teammates — but he was sad. That was 32-year-old defender Laurent Blanc, who scored the first "golden goal" in World Cup history to end France's round-of-16 struggle against Paraguay. Against Croatia, Blanc pushed Slaven Bilic in his chin and received a red card, which banished him from the game and left France to play 10 against 11 from the 74th minute. Blanc also will be banned from Sunday's game. Bilic — billed by Croatia as "a lawyer, the intellectual of the national side, a wise and modest man" — spent much of the game cursing and shoving Petit. "I had no intention of hurting him," Blanc said. "As a result of our collision, I deserved a free kick. He was holding me."

Most observers believe that the red card, given by Jose-Manuel Garcia Aranda of Spain, was too harsh. Bilic fell overdramatically to the ground; even an official of England's Professional Footballers' Association— Bilic plays for Everton — criticized Bilic. "Now he knows what his gesture [diving] has done to me," Blanc said. "That is why he came and apologized afterward. It was a personal catastrophe for me. It would have been a bigger one if Croatia had scored after I left the field. I would not have forgiven myself if the team had not qualified for the final. Now I will help the team prepare for Brazil. It is my duty."

Cloistered at Clairefontaine, the French will attempt to translate their euphoria into fighting spirit for Sunday's game. At their "monastery," Thuram planned to savor his goals for the rest of the day before going back to making sure they don't happen at his end. Jacquet said Friday will bring yet another emotion — business only — as the players return to work. "On Sunday," he said, "we will have a celebration of the sport."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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