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Penalty Kick Is France's Gain, Italy's Loss

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 1998; Page C1

 France's Zinedine Zidane (left) and Italy's Luigi Di Biagio battle for control of the ball. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)
SAINT-DENIS, France, July 3 — Shortly after Italian midfielder Luigi Di Biagio hit the crossbar on a penalty kick, securing France's 4-3 tiebreaker victory in a World Cup quarterfinal today, the jubilant French players broke away from their scattered celebrations on the Stade de France's field. They gradually made their way to midfield, where they slung their arms around each other's necks to form a long, joyful chain.

Then, rather than merely taking a bow in front of the 80,000 mostly French fans, the sweat-drenched players and their smiling coach, Aime Jacquet, began jumping up and down. They bobbed together in a spontaneous victory line dance.

With the penalty kicks that followed a scoreless 120 minutes, the French were assured of matching their previous best World Cup finishes — semifinal appearances in 1958, '82 and '86. France — which has allowed one goal, on a penalty kick, in 504 minutes through five games in this tournament — will meet the winner of Saturday's Germany-Croatia match in Wednesday's semifinal here.

This was the second dramatic finish in as many games for the French team, which won its round-of-16 match over Paraguay, 1-0, on the first-sudden death goal in World Cup history.

"We wanted to continue the adventure and stay another week," said France's playmaking midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who had been suspended for the past two games after being ejected for cleating an opponent. "Tonight we will celebrate. Our wives will eat with us and we will open some champagne."

For a nation that didn't even qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and '94 and has grown accustomed to World Cup failure, today's survival against the three-time World Cup champion Italians offered plenty of incentive to party.

The streets of Paris erupted after this afternoon's drawn-out match, with horn-honking and car-encircling crowds letting off steam. Tens of thousands of young people jammed the Champs-Elysees, waving flags and champagne bottles and even squeezing out 10 lanes of vehicular traffic. The party roared into the wee hours.

It was a flag-waving group that cheered and sang "La Marseillaise"; one fan was covered in red, white and blue bands of greasepaint. But the spirit was generous. Hands draped over shoulders, a chorus line of barechested young French supporters barged down the sidewalk chanting "the Italians are our brothers."

But with difficult contests to come, and the traditional French fatalism, fans found plenty of reasons to temper their joy.

"It's going well, but I don't know," a man named Serge said while standing in a cafe jammed wall-to-wall with people. "The way we were playing, I wondered if they even wanted to win."

The penalty kick that kept this surprising French team alive hit the crossbar almost square in the center. The author of the errant shot, Di Biagio, dropped lifelessly onto his back as the misfire rebounded back at him, and he grabbed his head with his hands. French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez had anticipated a shot to his left and had dived out of the ball's path; all Di Biagio needed to have done was hit the ball a few inches lower. The score would have been tied and the tie-breaker would have continued.

Instead, for the third straight World Cup, the Italians were eliminated after playing to a tie through regulation and overtime. They lost in the 1990 semifinals against Argentina and the '94 final against Brazil on penalty kicks.

"I've taken part in three consecutive World Cups and I have the impression history is repeating itself," Italy's Paolo Maldini said. "What does it say about us? Nothing more than we are unlucky."

Roberto Baggio, who missed the deciding penalty kick in 1994, converted his attempt today — Italy's first shot of the tiebreaker. When his ball hit the net, Baggio put his index finger to his lips, telling the hissing crowd to be quiet. In the end, however, the heads of Italy's players sank to their chests. Some of the seven French players who play professionally in Italy's First Division offered consolation. Zidane hugged Christian Vieri; defender Marcel Desailly rushed to embrace the stricken Di Biagio.

France's Bixente Lizarazu and Italy's Demetrio Albertini also saw their penalty kicks saved. For Italy, Baggio, Alessandro Costacurta and Vieri converted; for France, Zidane, David Trezeguet, Thierry Henry and Laurent Blanc converted. Blanc, who scored the sudden-death goal against Paraguay, again converted on his team's last shot.

"I feel utterly wiped out," Jacquet said. "It takes the coolest heads to win penalty shootouts. We stuck to our game plan and didn't lose our nerve. In the end, the best team won."

But with every passing minute, France's hopes of victory seemed to dwindle. The French barraged a punchless Italian lineup in the first half, dominating both possession and scoring chances, but they failed to convert. By halftime, the French had taken five corner kicks and the Italians none. The French took 11 shots to four by Italy.

But Italy produced a livelier attack in the second half, partially because of the insertion of Baggio for forward Alessandro Del Piero in the 67th minute. The enthusiasm of the French, scoreless despite so many opportunities, seemed to wane. Italian Coach Cesare Maldini claimed his team didn't intentionally play for the 0-0 tie, but the approach nonetheless looked extremely defensive.

"With two forwards and even a third playing in the hole behind them, I don't see how we could have attacked any more," Maldini said.

Italy's best chance came in the 102nd minute when Baggio barely missed a running right-foot shot. Deep in the box, Baggio curled the ball too far to the left, missing the far post by a couple of feet.

While not quite as animated as the obsessed soccer faithful of Brazil or England, the French fans at the stadium have warmed to their plucky team. Fans painted French flags on their faces outside the stadium — some covered their entire faces — and carried French flags inside. After the match, a crowd of about 2,000 stayed late, dancing in an empty stadium to rock music that blared over the loudspeakers.

For Wednesday, the French, which won all three first-round matches, expect to have their most talented lineup available for the first time in three matches. The team's star, Zidane, looked strong after his two-game absence. Henry, the team's leading scorer during this tournament, entered the match in the 65th minute after starting on the bench because of an ankle sprain. He seemed perfectly healthy.

As are France's chances of advancing to its first World Cup final.

"We are overjoyed to qualify for the semifinals," Jacquet said. "It's been very satisfying. The entire group is so extremely positive. We've been having a great time during our World Cup. . . . We're just living it to the hilt."

Staff writer Charles Trueheart, in Paris, contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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