World's a stage for Brazil, France Cup final presents dream confrontation

July 12, 1998|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

SAINT-DENIS, France -- Fans will samba the night away in Rio de Janeiro or grind Paris to a horn-honking halt from the Eiffel Tower to the Champs-Elysees, depending on what happens here today.

Either way, the world will slow down for a bit while France and Brazil meet to crown soccer's 16th World Cup champion at the Stade de France, just outside Paris.

Organizers could not have asked for a better scenario for the 64th match of the 33-day tournament: The popular four-time champs from South America against a host nation with its fingers crossed for its first title.

Brazil has more star power. The team's Ronaldo, just 21, may one day stand beside such superstars as Muhammad Ali, Pele and Michael Jordan in worldwide recognition. He'll get there quicker if he can dance past a stout French defense a time or two today.

Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos can also dazzle.

The French prayers are falling on Zinedine Zidane, the emotional, soft-spoken playmaker who has put his supporting offensive cast to shame.

Behind him, however, is an experienced group of defenders and heady midfielders that has shouldered most of the scoring burden.

The day's best matchup is expected to involve Ronaldo, who will play with a slight knee injury, against imposing French defender Marcel Desailly. French Coach Aime Jacquet calls Desailly his "anti-Ronaldo defense."

Jacquet already has won a special place in the hearts of pessimistic Frenchmen, who twice saw their team fall in the Cup semifinals in the 1980s. He will be a bigger hero if France triumphs in its first World Cup final.

The scenario isn't as forgiving for 66-year-old Mario Zagallo, though occasionally Brazilian fans seem almost ready to accept him as a fit coach for their team.

Zagallo, who burst into tears after his team's hard-fought semifinal triumph over the Netherlands on penalty kicks, was a winger on Brazil's championship squads in 1958 and 1962.

But he hasn't won the big one as a head coach, though there's a certain feeling in the Southern Hemisphere that the final was played on Tuesday in Marseille.

"In Brazil, right now, people are celebrating, but I have to wait," Zagallo said. "We are only going to celebrate after the final."

The French fans aren't so confident, but at least they are interested. That wasn't the case on June 10 when Brazil kicked off the tournament at the Stade de France against Scotland.

But standing behind their "Blues" has become a more popular pastime in this culturally concerned land. An estimated audience of 20.5 million (in a nation of 58 million) saw "les Bleus" squeeze past upstart Croatia in Wednesday's semifinal.

That took a heroic performance from defender Lilian Thuram, who had never scored at the international level, but did so twice in the win over Croatia.

A French win today would add a seventh name to the elite fraternity of Cup winners -- a list that includes only Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, England and Uruguay.

It also would even the continental score, leaving the 16 World Cup titles split evenly between the hemispheres.

But two big problems confront the French: Its forwards haven't scored since the first round and defender Laurent Blanc has been suspended after a controversial ejection against Croatia.

The French players obviously have some kind of home-park advantage, but some have complained about the staid nature of the their fans. Perhaps they are really complaining about the ticketing procedures, which left so many tickets with suit-and-tie sporting sponsors.

An estimated 300,000 people converged on the Champs-Elysees, the famed Parisian boulevard, to celebrate the nation's historic win Wednesday.

"Our real fans are outside the stadium," French midfielder Didier Deschamps said. "We need the same joy and enthusiasm we see out there."

Road to final

Brazil

Group A

Brazil 2, Scotland 1

Brazil 3, Morocco 0

Norway 2, Brazil 1

Second round

Brazil 4, Chile 1

Quarterfinal

Brazil 3, Denmark 2

Semifinal

Brazil 1, Netherlands 1

(Brazil won 4-2 on penalty kicks)

France

Group C

France 3, South Africa 0

France 4, Saudi Arabia 0

France 2, Denmark 1

Second round

France 1, Paraguay 0, OT

Quarterfinal

France 0, Italy 0

(France won 4-3 on penalty kicks)

Semifinal

France 2, Croatia 1

! Pub Date: 7/12/98

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