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Undefeated French Have Nothing to Lose

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, July 9, 1998; Page C1

 french coach
 Amid Wednesday's euphoria, Aime Jacquet kept his eyes on the big picture: "Brazil is the greatest team in this World Cup. They can surpass anyone almost when they please, as they did against the Netherlands." (Gabriel Bouyst/AFP)
SAINT-DENIS, France — So now it's set, a Brazil-France final on Sunday, and that should be a fitting way to conclude the 16th World Cup. The defending champion will play the host nation. The Brazilians will be going for their fifth Cup — no other country has more than three. For the French, simply playing in the championship game will be a new experience. Wednesday night was their "date with destiny," as one French paper called it, because they had lost semifinal games in 1958, 1982 and 1986. Now Sunday will become their "date with destiny."

What a glorious night this was in French soccer history. A defender, Lilian Thuram, scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over Croatia after never having scored a goal for his country. The crowd of 80,000 in the Stade de France chanted "Allez les Bleus." Believe it or not, France is the only team in the World Cup so far that hasn't lost. The French people, so astute otherwise, are just beginning to grasp that something fabulous is happening on their doorsteps. The French can be passionate about human relationships, food and wine and their own individual opinions. Now there's a soccer team available for them to take to their hearts.

The French can lord it over the English and Italians and Germans and Dutch for the rest of the week, and no matter what happens on Sunday they can savor the memories if they wish. "Brazil is the greatest team in this World Cup," cautioned Aime Jacquet, France's coach, amid Wednesday night's euphoria. "They can surpass anyone almost when they please, as they did against the Netherlands. The Netherlands played exceptionally well in the second half, but the Brazilians with their great individual players still were able to dominate them and win. But France is at home, and that's a wonderful thing for us."

The French players will have a home team's advantage. They also should be relaxed. Contrary to a contorted view in the media here, they are not — or at least, should not be — "carrying the weight of the country on their shoulders." They are matched against a champion that wants to prove its worth to doubters, that considers itself at least as good as the 1994 team, even if it is not as good as some Brazilian teams over the years. The best of those always were led by a superstar, Pele being foremost. Sunday will be the day when Brazilians surely will look to Ronaldo to step forward. He seems on the verge. Certainly Brazil's coach, Mario Zagallo, exuded confidence Tuesday night in Marseille after the Dutch were beaten on penalty kicks.

"We have willpower. We have tactics," he said. "This is a wonderful victory. In Brazil, people are celebrating now. But we must wait. We can only celebrate after the final. And I am confident we will win the final."

The Brazilians have enjoyed advantages, having played night games and missed some afternoon heat in the south of France. They have never had less rest than an opponent. But they have had a couple of tough games in a row, against the Netherlands and Denmark. To that, their captain, Dunga, a crew-cut, pugnacious sort, said: "Sometimes you have to step on the thorns to get the rose."

Support for the French team has been growing from game to game, and a huge street party occurred spontaneously after Italy was defeated in the quarterfinals. More and more fans are painting the tricolor on their faces and heads. "It is something we have never seen in France," said the captain, Didier Deschamps.

Deschamps is part of a strong midfield anchored by the classy Zinedine Zidane, a balding, serious-looking 26-year-old who is a quiet master at moving the ball to open teammates. Early in Wednesday night's game, the team went to him in several attempts to score out of the midfield. France has been hunting for a goal-scorer, and it turned out that the answer was even farther from the goal than Zidane. France is living precariously without a potent striker — without even a striker who has scored a single goal in the knockout rounds.

How do you beat Brazil when you don't know where your next goal is going to come from? It might as well be from Fabien Barthez, who happens to be the goalkeeper.

Could a new team possibly claim the World Cup? Winning a World Cup for the first time is a large step. It hasn't been accomplished since 1978, when Argentina broke through. The only countries with World Cup titles are Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Germany and England. France has been progressing slowly, but that's how it works in soccer.

In 1938, the French held their first World Cup and made it to the quarterfinals. Then they made it three times to the semifinal game. The only major title ever won by the French was the European championship 14 years ago. Making it to the 1998 finals is a logical progression. But to win Sunday would mean they reached a goal set a mere 60 years or so, just a blink in this sport.

What will happen Sunday? For at least one strong opinion we take you to that other city of light and bastion of soccer, Las Vegas. The Vegas odds on this tournament so far have been right on: Brazil went off as first choice, with France second. If the Vegas line continues to hold, soccer's ancien regime still will be in place Sunday night.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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