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Blanc's French Connection Is Golden

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 29, 1998; Page C1

 French defender Laurent Blanc (No. 5) celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime. (Thomas Kienzie/AP)
LENS, France, June 28 — For 90 frustrating minutes, neither France nor Paraguay could score, and for 22 minutes more, the 42,000 spectators here watched in agony, knowing a goal by either team would end the game. In the 23rd minute of the World Cup's first sudden-death overtime, France finally found a hole in Paraguay's seemingly impenetrable defense, and defender Laurent Blanc knocked in a "golden goal."

The victory put France into the quarterfinals against Italy Friday in Saint-Denis. And it sent home Paraguay, a surprise entrant into the round of 16 but a team with an iron-wall defense and a goalie, Jose Luis Chilavert, who is its heart and soul.

After Blanc finally air-kicked a short shot past Chilavert in the second period of overtime, a shot set up by a header from David Trezeguet off a cross by Robert Pires, Chilavert and three Paraguayan defenders fell to the ground in despair and exhaustion.

Chilavert was the first one to rise. He went to one teammate, then another, and gently lifted them to their feet and hugged them. At 32, this is probably Chilavert's last World Cup, but he is going out with class.

"It was a great effort from my players, but we made a few errors near the end, probably because of fatigue," said Paraguay Coach Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani. "In the penalty shootout, we would have stood a better chance."

This is the first World Cup to use sudden-death overtime, known in soccer as the "golden goal" rule, in the elimination round. In the 1994 tournament, the entire 30-minute overtime was played. If neither team scored in today's overtime, the game would have been decided on penalty kicks.

On the French team, no one player stood out, except for the one who wasn't there. If suspended halfback Zinedine Zidane had played, perhaps the crowd at Stade Felix Bollaert would have been spared the frustration of watching the French attack batter against the seemingly immovable Paraguayan defense for seven minutes short of two hours. But maybe not.

Zidane "may be the happiest one of us all tonight," said French Coach Aime Jacquet. Zidane has completed a two-game suspension and will be eligible to play against Italy.

"He certainly was missed. But the team won," said captain Didier Deschamps, echoing the sighs of relief among the French. "It'll be an advantage to have him back, and in fine form."

France halfback Youri Djorkaeff did his best to rally the team through the center, and he had the ball a lot. One shot was deflected only by a dramatic flying save by Chilavert. But Djorkaeff also was as stymied as anyone. At one point, he lost the ball near the goal and slid to his knees in frustration.

To hear the players talk, Italy will be a familiar face, if not an easy game, compared with Paraguay.

"We're glad it's over, even with such a low score," said Pires, who subbed in in the second half. "It's good to beat a team like Paraguay. They were very difficult, they have a lot of energy. This was a departure into the unknown. We know Italy."

France tried everything against the omnipresent Paraguayan fullbacks. France tried closing in toward the goal, settling and shooting. The ball was blocked by the fullbacks. It tried long lobs overhead. Chilavert caught them. It tried short pops; the Paraguayans headed them back.

"Every time we took a shot, there was a head in the way," Deschamps said.

During the long buildup to this World Cup, it was said frequently that the French had the potential to go to the finals if they could get their offense in shape. In the first round, it appeared that had happened. Young newcomers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet added attacking power to the solidity of veteran Zidane. In its first two first-round games, France scored seven goals and qualified for the round of 16.

But during the second game, against Saudi Arabia, Zidane received a two-game suspension for cleating. France won the following game against Denmark, 2-1. At the time it was seen as a hollow victory against an easy opponent; Denmark's 4-1 victory against Nigeria tonight changed that perception.

One potential casualty of the game: Henry suffered a sprained ankle, and whether he will be able to play against Italy was unknown.

Despite the energy of forward Jose Cardozo, the Paraguayans really never threatened. At one point, when French goalie Fabien Barthez caught a soft shot, he grinned; even with the game scoreless you could tell he was enjoying what happened to be his 27th birthday. Indeed, before the game Blanc gave Barthez's bald head a big kiss for good luck. It seemed to have worked.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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