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WORLD CUP '98: France's Day of Soccer Glory Arrives; Upset of Brazil in World Cup

By JERE LONGMAN (NYT) 1284 words
Published: July 13, 1998

ST.-DENIS, France, July 12 - The French soccer team, which had aroused an indifferent nation with its exceptional play over the past month, delivered an even more stunning accomplishment tonight, dominating favored Brazil to win its first World Cup title. In winning the world's largest sporting event, 3-0, France produced the tournament's most improbable championship game upset in nearly five decades.

Zinedine Zidane, France's exquisite playmaker, scored his first two goals of the competition at its most decisive moment, heading in a pair of corner kicks and making the home team the champion of the tournament, held every four years, for the first time since Argentina prevailed in 1978.

Even after defender Marcel Desailly was ejected for receiving his second yellow card 22 minutes from the end, France kept attacking and produced a short-handed goal in the 93d minute from midfielder Emmanuel Petit. So much for the belief, held inside and outside France, that French athletes seldom have the confidence or poise to win the big game.

When this tournament began on June 10, France hardly seemed interested that it was the host of an event that dwarfs the Olympics in terms of international anticipation. But slowly the French grew consumed by their soccer team, and tonight hundreds of thousands gathered to celebrate along the Champs-Elysees and the plaza at City Hall. The revelry was disrupted later in the evening when a driver apparently panicked and plowed her car into fans near the Arc de Triomphe, injuring about 60 people, seven of them seriously, according to rescue officials. The partying had been going on all weekend, even if the French fans hardly dared hope that their team could win.

In the end, though, France clearly dominated this tournament, surrendering only two goals in seven matches with a compact defense that smothered Brazil's attack in midfield. With more precise shooting, France could have won by 6-0. Even so, the three-goal margin matched the largest in a championship game.

''We were not satisfied just to be in the final,'' said Aime Jacquet, France's embattled coach. ''We've been working toward this for two years and we deserved to win.''

Ronaldo, the Brazilian forward considered to be the best player in the world, was reduced to limping tonight by an ankle injury and tendinitis in his knee. The team doctor, Lidio Toledo, also said Ronaldo felt faint after lunch today but had begun to feel better after resting.

The O Estado newspaper of Sao Paulo, Brazil, relying on an interview with Ronaldo's close friend and teammate, Roberto Carlos, reported that the pressure to succeed had apparently led Ronaldo, 21, to suffer a severe case of nerves that included vomiting and dizziness.

He was taken to a hospital for treatment for his ankle before the game, according to FIFA, the sport's world governing body, and was not listed in the original starting lineup. With Ronaldo a nonfactor, Brazil lost a World Cup final for only the second time in six appearances. That earlier defeat, a 2-1 loss at home to Uruguay in the 1950 title game, was the most unexpected result before tonight.

''France was better,'' said Brazil's 66-year-old coach, Mario Zagallo. ''We suffered a major traumatic shock. Ronaldo was not fit to play. That was a major psychological blow. Everyone was upset and down''

With 80,000 spectators watching at Stade de France and an estimated 1.7 billion watching on worldwide television, France became only the seventh team to win the World Cup, which began in 1930, joining Argentina, Germany, Uruguay, Italy, England and the four-time champion Brazil in this exclusive fraternity.

It was a Frenchman, Jules Rimet, who conceived the idea of a soccer world championship, and tonight it was French President Jacques Chirac who handed the championship trophy over his head to Didier Deschamps, the exultant French captain. This was quite a turnaround from 1994 when France failed to qualify for the World Cup, and from 1958, 1982 and 1986, when it exited in the semifinals.

Chirac wore a soccer scarf around his neck, while ordinary fans dyed their hair blue, white and red. Even some French policemen had the country's tricolor painted on their arms in anticipation of victory.

At the game's conclusion, the steely defender Lilian Thuram grabbed a tricolor, jogged to a corner of the stadium and waved it joyously, signaling that this was not merely a victory for French soccer, but also for French ethnic diversity.

Thuram was born in Guadeloupe. Zidane is the son of an Algerian night watchman. Desailly was born in Ghana. Others are of Armenian and Polish descent. Tonight's victory was a rebuke, in an athletic sense anyway, of the anti-immigration stand by Jean-Marie Le Pen and the right-wing National Front party that has gained popularity in recent years.

''Under adversity, France showed that it was a great team that could play with its heart,'' Jacquet said.

Jacquet, who had been heavily criticized before the World Cup for his defensive tactics and his inability to find a reliable scorer, has been at war with the French sports newspaper L'Equipe. And in his final, victorious game as coach, he showed no signs of letting bygones be bygones.

''No, never forgive that,'' the vindicated Jacquet said, accusing some French journalists of ''shameless lying.'' He added: ''I think people see that France has a great team. We have tremendous rapport with the country. I think everyone saw that France was able to play with pride and heart and deserved victory.''

France played without one of its central defenders, Laurent Blanc, who was ineligible because he received a red card in the semifinals. But Frank Lebouef played steadily in replacement, and the French defense was equally impregnable.

''That's just an excuse,'' Lebouef said of Ronaldo's sick stomach. ''Brazil is always dangerous, no matter who is out there.''

While France attacked from the beginning, Brazil played with a curious torpor in the first half. Ronaldo conserved his energy for the occasional sprint, only to suffer further injury in a high-speed collision with Fabien Barthez, the French goalkeeper. Ronaldo was unable to jump, and though he was in the vicinity, he was useless in attempting to stop Zidane as he headed a corner kick over Leonardo in the 27th minute and as he repeated the maneuver, unmarked, in the 46th minute.

Throughout the first half, Zagallo said he kept wondering whether to keep Ronaldo on the field or take him off. An argument with a reporter over this issue caused Zagallo to walk out of his post-game news conference. Ronaldo did have one inviting scoring chance in the second half, but he fired it directly at Barthez from point-blank range instead of at Deschamps, a midfielder who had retreated to the goal line but could not use his hands.

Ronaldo lost both a chance to score and to put himself in the company of such greats as Pele and Diego Maradona who brought their teams World Cup titles and themselves acknowledgment as the greatest players of their generation.

There was never any question about whether to play Zidane, the 26-year-old French midfielder, even though he had not scored before tonight's championship match.

''Zidane brought light to the game and illuminated it,'' Jacquet said. ''He scored with his head. Who could have predicted it? But it is one of those unpredictable things that makes this a beautiful game.''

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