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Thuram's Two Goals Send France to Final

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 1998; Page C1

 French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez blocks a shot by Croatia's Davor Suker, who had scored earlier in the match.
(Eric Draper/AP)
SAINT-DENIS, France, July 8 — French defender Lilian Thuram dug his cleats into the turf and lunged toward the escaping ball, which was rolling near the right corner of the penalty area. Having just collided with a Croatian defender in an attempt to gain possession, Thuram seemed out of control, off balance, leaning away from the goal. But he yanked himself upright, took a few powerful steps and suddenly his left foot came crashing through the ball, driving it into the far corner of the goal.

This 69th-minute score, Thuram's second of the game, sent France to a 2-1 victory over Croatia in tonight's World Cup semifinal at Stade de France. Thuram's left foot — and his right, which he used for his first goal — propelled France to its first World Cup final.

That match will be played here Sunday against defending and four-time champion Brazil, although France will be without starting defender Laurent Blanc, whose ejection in the 74th minute today left his team a man short for the remainder of the match and resulted in an automatic suspension for the final.

Nevertheless, France ended its three-time semifinal jinx, comprising losses in 1958, 1982 and 1986, and Thuram — carried around the field on a teammate's shoulders after the match — left the sometimes staid French fans dizzy with cheering.

But the significance of Thuram's left-footed blast took a moment to sink in. The pure magnificence of the shot left nearly all of the 80,000 spectators momentarily spellbound. Thuram's shot came from a bad angle, a bad shooting position and, ultimately, off of a bad pass by forward Thierry Henry. Thuram's follow-through consisted of half running and half falling for about 12 unsteady feet, trying to regain his balance from the violent swing of his left foot.

At that moment, he presented a perfect picture of this French team: on the brink of falling, yet unstoppable thus far in its World Cup quest.

"France undoubtedly deserved to win and go through to the World Cup final," Croatian Coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "But I think with a little more concentration, we could have been there instead of them."

The way the French have won their past three matches has been every bit as noteworthy as the mere fact that they've come so far. In 37 international games for France before tonight, Thuram had never scored. Tonight, he provided a quick counter to a 46th-minute goal by Davor Suker, that gave Croatia the lead for only one minute. His second goal allowed France to weather Blanc's ejection on a questionable decision by Spanish referee Jose-Manuel Garcia. Blanc received the expulsion for hitting Slaven Bilic in the eye. Replays showed Blanc's hand merely grazed Bilic's chin — Bilic's theatrical head-holding after the contact, notwithstanding.

In a quarterfinal victory over Italy last Friday, the French sweated out a 4-3 verdict in penalty kicks after 120 scoreless minutes. In the round-of-16 victory against Paraguay, they needed a sudden-death overtime goal by Blanc to win, 1-0. That means all three of France's goals in the elimination rounds have been scored by defenders.

Lacking a superstar striker such as Suker, the French rely upon aggressive midfield play and attacking runs from their defensive players to create opportunities.

Tonight, Thuram took advantage twice. His first goal lacked artistry; it consisted only of textbook execution. He outfought a Croatian for possession near Croatia's penalty area, poking a pass to France's Youri Djorkaeff. As Thuram took off on a give-and-go run, Djorkaeff punched him the return pass. Thuram caught up with the ball and, with a sliding kick, knocked it past goalkeeper Drazen Ladic.

"We weren't alert and careful enough," Blazevic said. "We scored a goal and at that point felt France was looking deflated. ... That [goal] fired them up and gave them a new force that they didn't appear to have before."

As is their custom, the French dominated play but didn't dominate the scoreboard. They totaled 20 shots to Croatia's nine. They struck 10 shots on goal to Croatia's three. They enter Sunday's match with only one disappointment: that Blanc will not be available. That's bad news for the French, who have relied upon his defense throughout this tournament. Tonight's goal by Suker was the first against France during the run of play, and only the second overall in six World Cup matches (the first was on a penalty kick).

But the French already have endured a two-match suspension of star midfielder Zinedine Zidane after his ejection from a first-round match. Whatever the troubles they have encountered so far, they have overcome.

"They all played their hearts out tonight," French Coach Aime Jacquet said. "I think that was the difference."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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