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KEEPING THE FAITH

If you’re looking for the best goalkeepers in the world, you won’t find them here.

Jose Luis Chilavert? The great wall of Paraguay checked out in the second round despite having yielded only one goal in 383 World Cup minutes. As they say in Paraguayan soccer circles, it’s that 384th minute that kills you.

David “Able” Seaman? England’s finest got as far as a second-round penalty shootout against Argentina, then blocked the second penalty kick he faced, essentially fulfilling his duties for the evening. If only Paul Ince and David Batty could say the same.

Peter Schmeichel? The Great Dane carried an unspectacular Denmark team all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals against Brazil, then got tired of all that heavy lifting.

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Edwin van der Sar? The pride of Amsterdam was last seen flinching and screaming on the Holland team plane out of Marseille, peering out the window like William Shatner in “The Twilight Zone,” convinced gremlins dressed as Dunga and Ronaldo are on the wing ripping the guts out of the engine.

The road to the World Cup final is now littered with crumpled gloves discarded by the surest hands in the sport. Jorge Campos, Kasey Keller, Gianluca Pagliuca, Andreas Kopke, Filip de Wilde--some of the best in the business, all rendered obsolete by the end of the quarterfinals.

When it comes to les gardiens of the net in Sunday’s championship match between Brazil and France, the invite list reads like the plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty--which, by the way, was a gift of international friendship presented to the U.S. Soccer Federation by a group of French football supporters in 1876.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teams still in contention on these shores.

Give me, in other words, Claudio Taffarel and Fabien Barthez.

Taffarel. Before Tuesday’s semifinal against the Netherlands, the name dripped off the lips of Brazilian commentators with such derisive venom that casual fans here were convinced “Taffarel” was Portuguese for “weak link.”

“One of around a dozen goalkeepers in Brazil of roughly the same standard,” Reuters assessed dismissively before the World Cup began.

Another published pre-Cup scouting report branded Taffarel as “unreliable . . . prone of making mistakes that [seem the result of] nerves . . . his handling has looked poor at the highest level, yet he has found favor with Coach Mario Zagallo, who has recognized that he is still the best goalkeeper Zagallo has despite his faults.”

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Taffarel has started in three World Cups for Brazil, including the championship run of ’94, yet is regarded as the Ringo Starr of Brazilian soccer: a charmed existence, along for the ride, drafting off the otherworldly skills of everyone around him.

How did Taffarel celebrate World Cup victory in ’94?

By looking for work. Cut loose by the Italian club Reggiano in 1994, Taffarel passed the time between jobs by playing forward for a church team in Italy. By 1995, he was back in the Brazilian professional league and back in the nets for the national team, where he was blamed for Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the Copa America by the president of the Brazilian soccer federation.

Since then, he has held his position in Brazil’s starting lineup despite daily media assaults on the mental acuity of the 66-year-old Zagallo.

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Barthez--renowned throughout this World Cup as the bald, goateed French guy with the short sleeves and the bad hands--is not ordinarily the No. 1 goalie on the French team. Usually, he backs up Bernard Lama, but that was before Lama ran afoul of a drug test last year and tested positive for marijuana.

With Lama suspended, Barthez became the starter by default, a rather ironic line of succession. Barthez himself was suspended for four months in 1996 after testing positive for marijuana.

It must be a very stressful assignment, guarding the goal behind the mercurial French defense.

Recent events, however, have conspired to thrust Barthez and Taffarel into the limelight of Sunday’s World Cup final. In short, they both survived shootouts--Barthez in the quarterfinal against Italy, Taffarel in the semifinal against the Netherlands.

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Barthez is now being toasted with goblets of fine Bordeaux in bistros throughout Paris, while Taffarel, who blocked penalty attempts by Philip Cocu and Ronald de Boer, is getting cult-hero treatment back in Brazil.

“Saint Taffarel!” cried the banner headline atop the national sports daily Lance, complete with a photo of Taffarel sporting an angel’s halo.

“The savior of his country!” gasped Gazeta Esportiva.

New parents in Brazil are now naming their baby boys “Taffarel.” Brazil’s president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, wrote a letter to the soccer team expressing “our sincere thanks to Taffarel. . . . For millions and millions of Brazilians, today shows that from the first game we kept believing in this warrior spirit that is such a good portrait of Brazil.”

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Taffarel, wizened veteran of 32, is bemused by the fickle finger of fate now declaring him to be No. 1.

“That’s Brazil,” he says with a laugh. “Tomorrow, if I am in the final and I commit an error, I will become Satan again.”

Hero today, Beelzebub tomorrow. As Taffarel and Barthez can readily tell you, it’s a hell of a way to make a living.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

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Brazil vs. France

Sunday, Noon

Channels 7, 34


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