France rallies its way to final Defender's goals push World Cup host past tough Croatia, 2-1

'This is a dream'

Foe in Sunday's final: defending champ Brazil

July 09, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAINT-DENIS, France -- After a tedious first half, something awakened in the French World Cup team last night, something exciting and desperate, and the team that could not score goals suddenly got two from the unlikeliest of places.

After producing no goals in his first 37 appearances with France's soccer team, the exquisite defender Lilian Thuram delivered a pair last night, providing a 2-1 victory over Croatia and propelling France into the World Cup final for the first time before delirious fans at sold-out Stade de France.

Two minutes into the second half, after he made a rare mistake that led to Croatia's goal, Thuram stole a pass to tie the game and energized a lethargic team that had not scored during regulation in two previous matches. He scored again in the 69th minute after another alert disruption and sent his team into Sunday's championship game against defending champion Brazil.

Stunningly, the semifinal match changed from a dull, interminable first half to a wild, gripping conclusion. France was fatigued and frantic to avoid a third consecutive overtime game. But five minutes into stoppage time, it was still not out of trouble. Not until goalkeeper Fabien Barthez punched away a shot from Goran Vlaovic did Croatia finally succumb in its first trip to the World Cup.

France played short-handed for the final 20 minutes, after its previous savior, Laurent Blanc, received a red card for a stiff-arm to the face of a Croat defender. He is ineligible for Sunday's final, which could be crippling. Blanc scored France's overtime game-winner against Paraguay in the second round and a quarterfinal penalty kick against Italy.

But Blanc's absence will be considered in a more sober, reflective moment. Last night was a night for exuberant release as France finally made it to the World Cup final after falling in the semifinals in 1958, 1982 and 1986. A previously indifferent nation has become fanatical about its ascendant team. In Paris, the Champs Elysee was jammed with exultant fans last night.

"This is a dream to have the World Cup in France with us in the final," French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said. "The second dream is to win on Sunday."

Thuram is normally a central defender for Parma in Serie A, the top Italian league, where he was voted this season's top best defender and foreign player of the year in 1997. But France has Blanc and Marcel Desailly at central defender, so the 26-year-old Thuram, who was born in Guadeloupe and came to France at age 9, reluctantly agreed to play right back in the Cup. He is part of a virtually impenetrable defense that has yielded two goals in six matches.

"It was an excellent reward for all the effort he has put in," said French coach Aime Jacquet. "Especially the mental discipline he has been able to instill into this team."

Just 25 seconds into the second half, the game exploded into a captivating fight to the finish.

France attempted an offside trap, seeking to catch Croatia's Davor Suker beyond the last defender and thus ineligible to receive a pass. But Thuram didn't scramble upfield, keeping Suker onside, and Suker, on a pass from teammate Aljosa Asanovic, pushed a left-footed shot past Barthez for a 1-0 Croatia lead.

A minute later, Thuram redeemed himself. He stole the ball from Zvonimir Boban, the Croat captain, and played give-and-go with teammate Youri Djorkaeff to tie the match at 1-1.

"France was lacking strength, but as so often happens, when you score and the opponent scores right after, it gives them the strength to come back and do better," said Miroslav Blazevic, the Croatian coach.

In the 69th minute, Thuram stole the ball off the foot of Croatia's Robert Jarni and hooked a shot inside the far post from 20 yards out, giving France a 2-1 lead that it would not relinquish.

France 0 2 -- 2

Croatia 0 1 -- 1

First half--None.

Second half -- 1, Croatia, Suker 5, 46th minute. 2, France, Thuram 1, 47th. 3, France, Thuram 2, 70th.

Yellow cards -- Croatia, Asanovic 44th; Stanic, 73rd; Simic, 92nd.

Red card -- Blanc, France, 74th.

Shots at goal -- France 20. Croatia 9.

Shots on goal -- France 10. Croatia 3.

Offsides -- France 1, Croatia 3.

Fouls -- France 18, Croatia 20.

A -- 76,000.

World Cup

Semifinals

Yesterday

France 2, Croatia 1

Tuesday

Brazil 1, Netherlands 1

(Brazil wins on kicks, 4-2)

Third place

Saturday

Croatia vs. Netherlands,

3 p.m., chs. 2, 7

Final

Sunday

Brazil vs. France,

3 p.m., chs. 2, 7

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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