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It Boils Down to a Moment Mirroring Us All

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, July 12, 1998; Page D8

PARIS — Now, the conclusion. The Americans finished last, Spain fell and Denmark advanced, Germany and Italy and the Netherlands lost, the English hinted at new life in their game, Argentina stalled in its post-Maradona era, soccer fans from everywhere survived sleepless nights and a month of planes, trains, taxis, hitched rides and language barriers from little Lens south to tough Marseille, and the three tenors sang beneath the Eiffel Tower. On Sunday, Brazil will play France for the World Cup.

Being an experience rather than an event, each World Cup has its theme. In 1986, it was Maradona. In 1990, it was the rise of hated defensive play. In 1994, it was the Americans happily letting the world come to them. The theme of this World Cup will be determined Sunday. Brazil will confirm its preeminence by winning its fifth World Cup, almost one third of the 16 total. Or France will make a quantum jump by becoming the first new nation in 20 years and only the seventh country to win the Cup, showing others the possibility.

The World Cup finals have grown so large, no one can claim to know more than a scant percentage of what's happened in France. Sixty-four games spread around 10 sites is such a human octopus that it defies imagination as to how not one but two countries, Japan and South Korea, possibly could equally divide the games and co-host the 2002 tournament. Even Sepp Blatter, the new president of FIFA, soccer's international governing body, is calling for a shorter finals; this means even the grand poo-bahs who stay in five-star hotels, sit at midfield, eat the fine French fare and get chauffeured everywhere won't be able to keep up.

Sometimes it takes several different cities and many matches before something unforgettable happens. Because the games are spread out geographically and the sport cannot be summarized by statistics, memorable moments for most won't be the same, like Joe Carter homering to end a World Series. Like food, money or love, soccer is universal. People bring to the World Cup their own experiences and expectations and leave with their own take on it.

The sight of the Nigerian players standing up in their team bus to applaud the fans on the street who were applauding them as they neared the Parc des Princes stadium is as vivid to me as England's Michael Owen scoring against Argentina with an acceleration that will continue to leave Liverpool's Premier League opponents up the field. France's Laurent Blanc beat Paraguay with a sudden-death goal as exhilarating as Owen's shot. But if you did not see either, you could still be affected by brothers together at their creative work, Brian and Michael Laudrup of Denmark or Frank and Ronald de Boer of the Netherlands. To see Jamaica's "Reggae Boyz" win a game was worth a voyage for many.

Brazil is known for its uplifting brand of soccer and the cheer its fans bring to World Cups. But this time, its team is like American teams in one respect: It's devoted to the bottom line. The Brazilians are on a mission like the Chicago Bulls; they want to win for a fifth time and meet the other demand from home to play up to high standards if not something more — an obligation to win. But with the exception of its 4-1 samba past Chile in the round of 16, the Brazilians have played without traditional flair.

The World Cup is difficult to win under any circumstances, and playing at home or close to home has been helpful. No European team has won in the Americas, and no South American team has won the Cup in Europe since Brazil did so in Sweden in 1958. Mario Zagallo acted far more dramatically Friday than his team has played in the tournament when he proclaimed: "After 40 years, our flag will fly again in Europe. The World Cup is safe in our hands."

If Brazil loses Sunday to France, it will be one of the darkest days in its soccer history. Not the darkest. That was July 16, 1950, when Brazil, playing before a crowd estimated at between 199,500 and 220,000 in Rio de Janeiro, took a 1-0 lead over Uruguay, only to lose, 2-1. Huge upsets happen along the grueling way in World Cup finals — the United States beat England in 1950 — but they rarely happen in the last game. Uruguay had to beat not only a great team it trailed but also a crowd that had reached an emotional pitch even before a government official announced to the team before the kickoff: "Fifty million Brazilians await your victory." Brazil's latest team knows 164 million at home await the victory.

France is yesterday's Uruguay, only with the home field. The French team, which has yet to show much offense, needs every advantage, including the largely partisan crowd that will fill the 80,000-seat Stade de France in Saint-Denis. The team will need the emotion of the day, its usually tight defense and a stroke or two of good fortune that would put the ball in the net.

"The whole team wants to play a really great game to give pleasure to the millions of French people who will be watching," Aime Jacquet, France's coach, said Saturday. "We are capable of winning because the importance of the match will be a supreme motivation, and we are 100 percent committed."

A one-goal victory by Brazil would seem a likely end to this month-long experience. But host countries have won the Cup five times, creating doubt. A French victory would be one of the major upsets in World Cup history; it would become mentioned in French history. For it to happen, it might even take "imponderable factors," which then-Brazilian coach Flavio Costa blamed for the '50 defeat by Uruguay. The celebration in Brazil hasn't started yet.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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