French Advance, Saudis Retreat


Among the heroes every great game produces, there always lurks a villain, and Thursday evening's "match extraordinaire" at the Stade de France at Saint Denis was no exception.

First, however, the outcome.

France defeated Saudi Arabia, 4-0, in the most dazzling display yet by any team in the 1998 World Cup, Brazil included. The incident-packed victory accomplished several things, not least of which were:

* It swept the host nation into the second round, where the French now join the Brazilians in the final 16.

* It eliminated the Saudis from the tournament, although they still have a game against South Africa remaining.

* It made the last coach left standing in World Cup '94, Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira, the first coach to be knocked out of World Cup '98, a remarkable turnaround.

"We came here to reach the second round," Parreira said. "I am sorry we did not do that, [but] the gulf between a team like France and Saudi Arabia was there to be seen today."

* It produced what has to be considered the goal of the tournament so far, a superlative strike by France's newest hero, Thierry Henry.

* It saw French striker Christophe Dugarry suffer a hamstring injury that will sideline him at least two weeks.

* It underlined the chaos that requests by new FIFA President Sepp Blatter and France 98 chairman Michel Platini for more punitive refereeing have caused.

But back to the heroes and villains.

Henry, obviously, falls into the former category. The 20-year-old from AS Monaco scored twice, giving him three goals in the tournament and putting him alongside Chile's Marcelo Salas and Italy's Christian Vieri as the tournament's top marksmen.

Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea was also a hero. But for a half-dozen remarkable saves by him, the French might have scored in double figures. Neither does the 4-0 result reflect the fine play of defender Abdullah Zubromawi.

But the night belonged to the French team in front of an ecstatic crowd of 80,000, many of whom were singing the Marseillaise after Henry had made the score 3-0, controlling a 60-yard punt by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, sprinting toward goal and sliding an inch-perfect shot just inside the right post.

Earlier, David Trezeguet had headed in a cross from Lilian Thuram. And Bixente Lizarazu netted the fourth as France scored three times in 16 minutes in the second half.

But it was the first strike that was the champagne goal of the night.

It started innocently enough with a pass from Trezeguet deep in the French half of the field. The ball went to defender Laurent Blanc, who swept it out to Lizarazu overlapping down the left wing.

Lizarazu, who played an excellent game, passed it inside to midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who held it just long enough to draw Saudi players Mohammed Al Jahani and Khamis Al Owairan toward him, then flicked a no-look pass into the penalty area to Lizarazu, curling around behind him.

Lizarazu evaded Zubromawi's challenge and sent a low cross in front of the net. Henry darted in front of Hussain Sulimani and beat Al Deayea from close range.

Lizarazu's run and Zidane's delaying tactic and pass created the goal, making them heroes. But was Zidane also the villain? Or was it Mexican referee Arturo Brizio Carter, who reduced Saudi Arabia to 10 men in the 19th minute when he red-carded defender Mohammed Al Khilaiwi for a late but seemingly innocuous tackle?

There was nothing innocent about the foul committed in the 70th minute by Zidane, however. He stamped on fallen Saudi captain Fuad Amin and was tossed out of the game by Brizio Carter.

Blatter and Platini had demanded that referees be more diligent in expelling players who foul, and Thursday's two games produced a ludicrous five red cards and 11 yellow cards, angering coaches, players and fans alike.

"One moment they don't hand out enough cards and the next they hand out too many," Platini said.

Perhaps he and Blatter are the villains after all.

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