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A Worthy Struggle With a Fitting End

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, July 8, 1998; Page C1

 Striker Dennis Bergkamp was smothered by the Brazilian defense and barely touched the ball. (AFP Photo)
MARSEILLE, France — The game ended the way it should have, and really had to if justice was to be served. Defending World Cup champion Brazil — the better team but not by much — beat a determined Netherlands on Tuesday night in a classic game to advance to the Cup final Sunday. But the Brazilians almost let the hard-fought, tense semifinal escape from them. They elected, unwisely, to change tactics late in regulation time and try to preserve a 1-0 lead with a defensive stand — and it almost cost them the tournament.

As the Brazilians stopped advancing, the Netherlands crowded into Brazil's end of the field, then electrified the jam-packed Stade Velodrome by scoring in the 87th minute and doggedly forcing two overtimes during which both teams attacked one another repeatedly. The fates of both were sealed only by a penalty shootout, dreaded by all soccer teams because of the uncertainty.

For the longest time it seemed as if Brazil's victory would come much more easily. The 21-year-old Ronaldo gave many fans what they hoped to see when, with a burst of speed, he darted free 23 seconds into the second half to score. It appeared that his talented toe would provide the margin of victory and that maybe even he would add another score. But at the finish it took the fast reflexes and steady hands of goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel.

The shootout appeared to favor the Dutch because of the highly regarded Edwin van der Sar in front of their net. But the 32-year-old Taffarel, a veteran of more big games, saved the Brazilians and perhaps their fifth World Cup by making two dramatic stops for a 4-2 shootout victory. Taffarel denied Phillip Cocu, the Netherlands' third penalty kicker, and clinched the game by blocking Ronald de Boer's attempt after all four of Brazil's penalty kickers converted.

"God has been helping me," Taffarel said after being mobbed by happy teammates. "Brazil deserves a moment of joy."

The first half was marked by some tentative play, but also a number of scoring opportunities created by both teams. It was rough, with Edgar Davids dominating in midfield. Davids, a short, barrel-chested, tireless worker known as the "Pit Bull," rendered a stirring performance. Only Brazil's captain, Dunga, prevented Davids, his ponytail bobbing, from owning the entire field. In contrast to Davids, striker Dennis Bergkamp was a no-show. May the man who hates to fly ride the trains forever in England's Premier League, because the World Cup semifinal stage proved far too intimidating for him.

What chance would a Netherlands have in the World Cup final with a Bergkamp who played the way he did Tuesday night? The Brazilian defense smothered him. He barely touched the ball. He lacked speed and sometimes hung his head in frustration. Ronald Koeman, the former great Dutch defender and now an assistant coach, said the other day, "For Brazil, we will need a good Bergkamp."

Koeman evidently knew that there could be a variety of possible Bergkamps, and the fact that the wrong one appeared Tuesday night really was the difference in the game. Defender Jaap Stam collapsed with leg cramps in the eighth minute of the second overtime, but got off his stretcher to play on. Davids continued running like a machine. De Boer fed Patrick Kluivert perfectly for his header goal, after Cocu maintained possession by beating Dunga to the ball. Bergkamp owed his teammates something — any small contribution would help.

Given Bergkamp's ineptitude, it seemed after 45 minutes that the game could be decided by Ronaldo, so graceful and swift, if the Dutch defense made even a small mistake. And in the seconds after intermission, almost before the Dutch knew play had begun, Rivaldo pushed the ball ahead to Ronaldo, who outdistanced Frank de Boer and Cocu and left-footed the ball under van der Sar. By midway through the second half, Brazil took control of play and appeared on the verge of putting away the game with another goal. But the Dutch defense held. And the feeders began looking more and more to Kluivert, a rising star at 22, than to the listless Bergkamp.

To their credit, the Dutch replaced defender Arthur Numan with a third striker, Boudewijn Zender, at 21 the youngest player on the team. The Dutch, as they had said, would attack. The opportunity to make the final was theirs, and they went for it as a good team should. This left the back-line protection mostly up to captain Frank de Boer and Stam — and they almost were perfect against the far faster Brazilians. Brazil had several chances but, as an example, Stam made a sliding block of a shot by Ronaldo. Davids clipped Ronaldo from behind and got away with it as Ronaldo was positioned to score a second time. Ronaldo, the magician, wound up with a bicycle kick that wasn't cleared until Frank de Boer headed it away.

Rivaldo was denied point-blank by van der Sar. The Netherlands' Kluivert fired inches wide of the right post. Back and forth it went, and in the overtime, when teams tend to get conservative, both Brazil and the Netherlands intensified their offense. A bit of bad luck for the Netherlands was the absence of veteran striker Marc Overmars, out with a pulled hamstring muscle. Overmars might have offset Bergkamp.

Although penalty kicks are not a satisfactory ending, it will be difficult to top the excitement of this night in the France-Croatia semifinal or the final itself. The night was electric, from early evening until a full moon came up over the stands filled with Brazilian and Dutch rooters, and the winds began to blow. Seas of orange flooded into the stadium — Dutch fans numbered about 15,000.

Brazil's defense matched the Dutch defense and kept the crowd roaring. Aldair and Junior Baiano and Roberto Carlos were especially sturdy, and Ze Carlos, subbing for the talented Cafu, out with a red-card suspension, settled into the game after a shaky start. Zender circled him three times, but the Netherlands failed to capitalize. At the other end, Ronaldo was a constant threat. He expressed satisfaction with his game, saying, "I was able to rise to the occasion and am able to decide important matches." But he hastened to add: "The whole team was responsible for the victory."

Now Brazil will have the opportunity to win its fifth World Cup. It had been a long, harrowing game but Rivaldo said: "We have five days to recover. We're going to get to the final fine. God is on our side" — although Ronaldo may be enough.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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