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Zidane, Ronaldo and a Month of Memories

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, July 14, 1998; Page E8




PARIS — "The happiness of being French," proclaimed the headline in Le Figaro. For the first time in a long time, soccer mattered as much in France as it does in other European countries. The European championship 14 years ago was the only international soccer title ever won by the French until Sunday night, when they won the World Cup, and now feel like they own the world.

France's longest-running sports party continued Monday, as this World Cup confirmed again the advantages of being a host country and how difficult it is for a South American team to win in Europe. Six hosts have won the 16 World Cups, but not since 1958, when the Brazilians won in Sweden, has a South American nation won in Europe. The 1998 Brazilians will be remembered for an historic 3-0 defeat in the final game, in which they played listlessly against a team that won the Cup without an attacker scoring a goal in the knockout rounds — a flaw that would seem tragic but somehow wasn't.

The French, particular as they are about many things, did not care if their goals came from the midfield or the defense. President Jacques Chirac said that he wished he had been a goalkeeper, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin emphasized that he once was. Now, Jospin said that he imagined himself a player-manager no less, calling himself in a radio interview "a combination of [French Coach Aime] Jacquet and [midfield hero Zinedine] Zidane."

Zidane's double header that gave France a lead Sunday night made him the player of the tournament and the people's choice forever. The son of Algerian immigrants, Zidane is the heart of the team that reflects the diverse French population. The team's roster also includes players with roots in the South Pacific, Georgia, the Basque region, West Africa and the Caribbean.

As Zidane, 26, made history, Brazil's Ronaldo, 21, failed in the most important game to live up to his immense hype. He rarely seemed himself during this tournament, although there were exceptions when he shrugged off the unrelenting defenses: his two-goal game against Chile in the round of 16, and a mesmerizing moment against the Netherlands in the semifinals when he accelerated to score 23 seconds into the second half. That was art as opposed to house painting.

But against France — whether it was his various leg ailments or a bad stomach caused by food or nerves — Ronaldo looked as if the pressure of wearing Brazil's yellow jersey weighed heavily on him. Brazil was revealed to have only a so-so defense compared with other World Cup teams, too many players off their games and a lack of will to overcome difficulties without its best player playing his best soccer. Brazil, too, needed Romario, the star of the 1994 Cup, who was dropped from the team because of injury.

This World Cup demonstrated the need to condense the tournament to less than a month-plus as players and fans grew weary. Also needed: more consistency in officiating and a crackdown on the practice of players faking injuries rather than referees falling for the stunts; a better solution for ending tie games than a penalty-kick shootout; and greater media access to the athletes. Time set aside for interviews varies from team to team, but a constant is the content of the conversations — sometimes light-hearted, sometimes serious, almost always informative.

As France's Laurent Blanc put it after receiving a red card in the semifinals and thus being automatically suspended for the last game: "I have the feeling of having tasted the cake but now I'm not allowed to touch the cherry."

Before his underdog Croatians beat Germany, Coach Miroslav Blazevic said: "Nobody gave the English a chance against Rommel in the desert. But Rommel lost because they cut off his fuel supply. In the same way, we will cut off the supply of possesssion to Klinsmann and Bierhoff."

Croatia's Davor Suker, the tournament's Golden Boot Award winner with six goals, explained his team's relaxed attitude while finishing third in its first World Cup: "After all we have endured in our streets and our countryside, what do we have to fear on a sporting field of green?"

Hooligans remained the disheartening underside of big-time soccer. Their presence resulted in the knifing death of one man, a French policeman almost beaten to death who remains in a coma and uncounted injuries. Cities and towns trembled as the hordes from England and Germany moved in.

My fonder memories of France 98 include: the sleeping cats of Marseille and the tranquil dogs of Paris, fast trains and speeding drivers, the croissant and the croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese), the sound of "La Marseillaise," assorted loopy looks on the face of the bald French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, Ronaldo's girlfriend-model Susana Werner waving a Brazilian flag at the semifinal, horns and painted faces, the curving stands of Marseille's Stade Velodrome beneath sweeping hills, the mistral, the feel of an English soccer stadium in Lens, the friendly people of Lens.

Also: the two rivers of Lyon, the Netherlands' cliff-top training site smack against the sky above Monaco, stacked luggage at Charles de Gaulle airport as baggage handlers joined the pre-Cup Air France strike, ubiquitous audio replays of the announcer Andres Cantor's trademark cry of "gooooolll," the sportsmanlike embrace of midfield warriors Dunga of Brazil and Edgar Davids of the Netherlands after a collision, lowered heads of Brazil's reserves during the final minutes of the 16th World Cup, Zidane lifting the Cup, the sea of people Monday on the Champs-Elysees cheering as the French players passed triumphantly.

Au revoir, France.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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