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Defending Cup champs seek place in history
France always has been better known for its appreciation of art, romance and fine dining than for the muscular tenacity typically attributed to northern and eastern European countries. Historically, the more subtle French sensibility had seeped into the play of the national soccer team, which was once regarded as the Brazil of Europe for the beauty of its game.
Unlike Brazil, however, the cultured soccer exemplified by players such as Michel Platini and Eric Cantona never resulted in a World Cup title. France reached the Cup semifinals in 1982 and 1986, but was eliminated by West Germany both times, the 82 loss coming on penalty kicks after squandering a 3-1 lead in overtime.
The times, however, have changed and so has the way France plays football. The delicate passing is still evident, but now its backed by a full-blooded fortitude that has turned a perennial contender into a defiant champion. The French won their first World Cup in 1998, as host nation, after being pushed to overtime twice. Two years later they snatched the 2000 European Championship trophy from Italy with a tying goal in stoppage time and a game-winner in OT.
The Germans made their luck. Now we, too, have that mentality, said defender Frank Leboeuf after the miraculous Euro 2000 comeback.
On Friday, France will begin its quest to further burnish its place in soccer history when it opens the 2002 World Cup against African debutant Senegal. If France can slalom through a seven-game minefield and win this tournament, it will become the first nation since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 to claim back-to-back World Cups. Wrap that around the Euro 2000 trophy and the French will inspire comparisons to Brazils 1970 Cup champion, generally considered the best team of all time.
We are given the opportunity to achieve something that no one has ever done before, said star midfielder Zinedine Zidane. The challenge is huge.
But well within reach. France wont have the home-field advantage that played such a large role in its 1998 World Cup victory, but it does have something else an even better team. France won in 98 even though just one of the 14 goals it scored came from a forward. That statistical anomaly isnt likely to be repeated with insertion of forwards Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet into the starting 11.
Both scored 24 goals to lead their respective leagues this past season, Thierry with Arsenal in the English Premiership and Trezeguet with Juventus in Italys Serie A. The much-improved attack is supported by an experienced back four of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Frank Leboeuf that has played a combined 287 games for France.
Goalkeeper Fabien Barthez also returns, as do veteran midfielders Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff. Then theres defensive midfielder Patrick Vieira, a backup in 98, who may be the second best player on this team behind the incomparable Zidane.
Any other result than the final victory will be considered a setback, France coach Roger Lemerre said. Winning is part of the culture of this team. They will never be satisfied with a defeat.
All the parts are in place for a run at history, but the trouble for Lemerre now is that some of those parts are hobbling, including Zidane, who will miss the opener against Senegal and possibly the second game against Uruguay. Zidane strained a thigh muscle Sunday in a warmup match against South Korea, putting him on an infirm list that has included Henry (knee), Vieira (ankle) and Desailly (Achilles and hamstring).
France already has lost stylish midfielder Robert Pires to a knee injury, and the prospect of starting the tournament without Zidane has knitted the brow of Lemerre and an anxious French public. Zidane missed two matches at France 98 to serve a red-card suspension, and France was forced to overtime both times. It needed a goal by defender Laurent Blanc in the 114th minute to beat Paraguay, then squeezed past Italy on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw.
Djorkaeff, a starter in the 98 final, will likely fill in for Zidane. Fill in, but not replace. Without Zidane, France cant play the same way, Lemerre said. His presence lifts the whole team.
Without Zidane to orchestrate the attack, France will be easier to defend, but it wont necessarily be easier to beat. Lemerres roster is brimming with players who starred for European clubs that won titles the past two seasons.
Henry, Vieira and backup forward Sylvain Wiltord played for English Premiership and F.A. Cup winner Arsenal. Trezeguet and Thuram led Italian champ Juventus. Zidane and backup midfielder Claude Makelele started for Real Madrids European Cup champion.
In 2001, defenders Lizarazu and Willy Sagnol won the European Cup and German league at Bayern Munich, while Vincent Candela won a Serie A championship at AS Roma. Thats 12 players who have claimed major titles the past two seasons.
Fifteen years ago we had the talent, the skills and the physical shape, but we lacked the mental strength we have acquired by playing in the great clubs across Europe, said 98 captain Didier Deschamps, who has since retired. Most of the guys who are going to play in South Korea and Japan have worn the colors of famous foreign clubs. And its going to help them a lot because they are used to the pressure.
Part and parcel of that success at the club level, however, are the injuries that result from playing so many high-profile games. Between the European Champions League and domestic league and Cup matches, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Juventus and Bayern Munich each played in excess of 50 games this past season.
When we get them they are tired and vulnerable to injuries, Lemerre groused. If it isnt the injuries that spoil the cork on this French vintage, then it could be opponents who want to flex their muscle against the defending champions. The French are expected to win their group over Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay, even without Zidane, though it wont be as easy as some think, according to Thuram.
People who looked at our draw and suggested that we had an easy opening game [against Senegal] simply dont know much about top-level football, Thuram said.
After a testy first round, the road to the final gets perilous. Theres the possibility of playing England or even Argentina in the second round, Brazil in the quarterfinals, and if not Argentina earlier, then in the semifinals. Then theres a potential date with Italy in the final.
They will come up against teams who will be much more motivated to beat them because they are favorites, said Brazils World Cup winning left back Roberto Carlos. Theyre going to experience the kind of pressure Brazil have had to live with for decades, and commencing a World Cup campaign under such conditions is far from easy, I can assure you.
Thats clearly been the case for the past nine defending champions. Yet, unlike most of their predecessors, the French begin their defense with arguably their best team ever. As important as the remarkable pool of talent, perhaps, is an irrepressible desire to enrich the image of French football.
We dont see ourselves as people like [Germanys Franz] Beckenbauer or [Argentinas Diego] Maradona, who were our idols, Leboeuf said. We dont feel we have achieved what they have achieved. Obviously, everyone wants our heads. But we know what we are really worth. We are a strong side because we have never taken anything for granted. There is only one step from confidence to complacency and we have never taken that step.