Last two champs start slowlyThe last two champions of the World Cup got off to disappointing starts, but one managed to come away with three points, while the other had to settle for a draw early yesterday, Korean time.
France, the 1998 champion who bowed out of the first round at the 2002 World Cup without scoring a goal, ran its goalless streak to four games in a 0-0 game against Switzerland in their Group G match.
Defending champ Brazil reached a milestone of its own, with a 1-0 defeat of Croatia in the Group F contest: Brazil has won eight consecutive World Cup matches, the longest streak ever, starting with their 2-1 win over Turkey in Korea four years ago.
France and Switzerland also played to two draws, 0-0 and 1-1, in their European qualifying round, and recent history repeated itself in a match featuring very few scoring opportunities for either side.
Despite questions about his age and durability, 33-year-old captain Zinedine Zidane showed deft ball handling, on-field vision and the ability to control the game that helped him win the 2003 FIFA Player of the Year honors. Most of the early attacks began with Zidane making crisp passes from the midfield, but his forwards failed to convert them into scoring chances.
And French coach Raymond Domenech should be concerned that Les Bleus couldn't muster a goal, despite having a 4-1 advantage in corner kicks and a 9-7 advantage in shots on goal.
“Our first half was perfect and all we lacked was a good shot to put us in front,” he said, according to FIFA’s Web site. “I also felt my players were a little bit too impatient. We saw a lot less of the ball in the second half.”
Thierry Henry, the reigning top scorer in the English Premier League, failed to connect on an early pass from forward Sylvain Wiltord, and then didn’t get all of the ball on a great cross by midfielder Frank Ribery toward the end of the first half.
Switzerland had even fewer chances. The best came in the 24th minute, when midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta’s free kick bounced back off a post, but forward Alexander Frei failed to make a clear contact on the rebound.
In the scoreless contest, Eric Abidal, 26, was a bulwark for France at the back end, constantly frustrating the Swiss forwards. Barnetta, the best Swiss player on the day, had a decent chance at the 60th minute, breaking in toward the box from the left, only to be halted by Abidal.
The draw places the two teams tied for second in the Group G standings and two points behind Korea, which beat Togo 2-1. France plays Korea early Monday, while Switzerland faces Togo later on the same day.
In the last match of the day, Brazil squeaked past a well-organized Croatia, thanks to a picture-perfect strike off the left foot of midfielder Kaka just outside the penalty area with two minutes left in the first half.
Croatia had several chances, including Niko Kranjcar's low strike in the 27th minute that was deflected off Brazilian defender Lucio. The team also threatened to score an equalizer in a two-minute span midway through the second half, as forwards Ivan Klasnic and Dado Prso were denied at close range by goalkeeper Dida.
Ronaldo, a top Brazilian striker who has been battling weight problems, was invisible in the game. His lone chance came in the 56th minute, but the kick from outside the box sailed over the net. The 29-year-old is listed on FIFA's Web site as weighing 82 kilograms (181 pounds), five kilograms, or 11 pounds, heavier than his normal playing weight.
Brazil and Australia, tied atop the Group F standings, will play each other Monday, while Croatia will face Japan late Sunday.
by Yoo Jee-ho