Zidane’s retirement moves to Cup final
Zinedine Zidane, the French captain, has said this is his final soccer tournament. But after his team started off with uninspiring draws against Switzerland and Korea, France faced the possibility of another humiliating first-round elimination. It had to beat Togo just to advance to the next round, and then face the surging Spanish squad.
But France, after upsetting Spain and then Brazil in the quarterfinals, is back in the World Cup final, as it beat Portugal 1-0 yesterday on a penalty kick goal in the 33rd minute by Zidane, who came out of retirement to play in the tournament. France is in its first final since 1998, when it defeated Brazil on home soil for its first World Cup title.
“It will be good to lift the cup one more time,” Zidane told The Associated Press. “We really want to succeed. We have the weapons to do it, and we have the will to do it.”
Zidane, who also scored against Spain and set up the winning goal against Brazil, has been at the center of his team’s transformation.
But France’s head coach, Raymond Domenech, argued that the focus shouldn’t solely be on one player in Monday’s final.
“Yes, it will be the last one for [Zidane], but it’s not what he is thinking about,” Domenech told Reuters. “This is not all about Zinedine Zidane’s last game. It is the World Cup final against Italy.”
The game was also the last one on the international stage for another star, Portugal’s captain Luis Figo. Like Zidane, Figo is 34 years old. He also came out of retirement to rejoin the national team.
Portugal had chances early on to get to its first World Cup final. Midfielder Maniche’s blast from 25 yards out whistled just above the bar in the ninth minute. Forward Cristiano Ronaldo was booed every time he touched the ball by the sizable English crowd for allegedly telling the referee to eject English forward Wayne Rooney in their quarterfinal match, but he managed to be a constant danger in the French zone. His best chance was deflected wide of the net just before the break.
Trailing 1-0, Portugal wasted more chances in the second half, with Fernando Meira blowing an open chance well over the crossbar in injury time. And the captain lamented those missed opportunities.
“France took advantage of the opportunity they had. We had a few chances, and we weren’t as clinical,” Figo told FIFA’s World Cup Web site. “It’s a shame because we didn’t deserve this result, and the scoreline does not wipe out all the good things that we have done in this World Cup.”
Figo and Zidane have won a combined four FIFA World Player of the Year awards and two European Footballer of the Year honors. But the two players who dominated the soccer scene from the late 1990s and early 2000s will now exit the stage in different styles.
“Sometimes, your opponents aren’t better than you, but they win,” Figo was quoted on the World Cup Web site. “That’s how football is.”
But Figo could at least hold his head high for his efforts. Pauleta, Portugal’s all-time leading scorer, was invisible once again when his team needed him the most.
He had one goal in six games at this World Cup, coming in Portugal’s opener against Angola, his 47th for the country. Over his last 12 international matches, however, that remains his lone tally.
“I am really disappointed for the team, for the Portuguese people,” he told The Associated Press. Pauleta was replaced in the 67th minute.
With the loss, the personal World Cup winning streak of Portugal’s coach Luiz Felipe Scolari came to a halt at 12. He led Brazil to the 2002 title by reeling off seven straight wins, and then reached the semifinals this year with five more wins.
After the match, the coach, known as “Drill Sergeant,” sounded bitter.
“I don’t think France was better than us ― it was an even game,” Scolari told the World Cup Web site. “I reckon a draw ending in a penalty shootout would have been fairer.”
But he also vowed to push his team to beat Germany in the third-place match early Sunday, calling the game “another target.”
The Brazilian native then urged the Italian side to be careful of the French team, which he said “has fantastic talent.” Beside talent, they also have the experience. The core players of the French team ― Zidane, striker Thierry Henry, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, defender Lilian Thuram and midfielder Patrick Vieira ― all played on the 1998 World Cup winning squad and the Euro 2000 championship team.
“It is an advantage having this experience, having players who know what it takes to go to the end,” Domenech told The Associated Press.
And France will need all its experience against Italy, which has successfully blended its usual defensive intensity with surprising offensive flair. Italy will also have one more day’s rest than France after beating Germany in extra time on Wednesday.
“Italy is a team that waits and waits,” Henry was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “They send you to sleep and then they score in the last minutes.”
Based on recent historical connections between the finalists, France could return as the champion. During Euro 2000, France faced Portugal in the semifinal, and Zidane’s goal sent France into the final against Italy. David Trezeguet’s golden goal lifted Les Bleus over the Italians for the title.
But for now, the French are enjoying their victory, which, as recently as two weeks ago seemed highly unlikely.
“We had a lot of difficulty at the start, but it made us stronger as we knew how to deal with pressure,” France midfielder Florent Malouda said to The Associated Press. “We let ourselves go in the dressing room. Then we thought we must be serious and prepare for Italy.”
by Yoo Jee-ho