Originally created 07/09/98

France slips into World Cup final



SAINT-DENIS, France -- Just when the cheers and chants of the French fans were dying, blue lightning struck twice, and World Cup history belonged to the home team.

A pair of goals by defender Lilian Thuram, the first just a minute after Croatia took the lead, gave France a 2-1 victory Wednesday and a spot for the first time in the championship game of the tournament it dreamed up 70 years ago.

With 77,000 fans screaming their heads off, some even trying to wrap themselves in a giant blue French uniform that covered seven sections, the national stadium north of Paris rocked with victory unknown in centuries of athletic greatness.

"It is truly the most beautiful day in the history of French sport," French President Jacques Chirac said.

It might have been beautiful in the end. But winning a chance to prevent Brazil from extending its record of four championships in the final Sunday wasn't easy, and France had to play the last 16 minutes a man short after defender Laurent Blanc was ejected for pushing an opponent in the face. He'll miss the final with an automatic suspension.

Croatia, a nation just 8 years old and playing in its first World Cup, took the lead 26 seconds after halftime on Davor Suker's breakaway.

"They caught us dead cold," French captain Didier Deschamps said.

That quieted the crowd and seemed to drive a stake into the French team's heart. It turned out it just got their attention.

Thuram tied it less than a minute later on a play that started with a beautiful steal, and won it on another close-range goal 21 minutes from the end.

"We hit the goal. We were in the final," Suker said.

That would have been history of its own. No World Cup rookie had come even this far since Italy won the second World Cup back in 1934.

Croatian players said the French looked beaten, dragged down by overtime matches in the previous two rounds.

"If we had held the lead for five minutes, they were going down," Slaven Bilic said. "The players, the fans. They had played two matches of 120 minutes each. They looked tired."

But Thuram reversed that with his first goals in 37 games for the national team.

"This is fabulous. I don't even score during training," Thuram said. "It was 200 percent luck. I am not a hero because I scored the goals. To be a hero -- that's left for the final."

The final was not assured until goalie Fabien Barthez tipped a last-gasp shot over the crossbar less than 30 seconds before the last whistle.

"I don't think we had a wonderful game tonight, but we played our hearts out and that made a difference," French coach Aime Jacquet said. "Croatia played a very strong game and it was hard to move their defense around."

The World Cup was the brainchild of Jules Rimet, a French sports official in the Roaring '20s. France played in the first one, and nine others since. Three times previously it made the final four. Never did it win.

But now it will return to the Stade de France on Sunday night to play for the title against Brazil, which beat the Netherlands in a shootout Tuesday in Marseille.

It will be the first time the defending champion and the host nation meet for the championship.

Jacquet, who has been criticized for a lackluster attack despite the team's success, said the championship "will be a wonderful game, a festival of football. Brazil is the defending champion and the best team in the world."

France has been the tournament's chameleon, scoring bushels of goals in the first few games, then hiding among the rocks. It had just one goal, a sudden-death winner by Blanc against Paraguay, in the second round and quarterfinals, and needed a shootout to beat Italy.

This one was a shootout, too, but it never made it to overtime or the penalty kick.

Suker broke free and put the ball past the baldheaded Barthez just 26 seconds into the second half. It was only the second goal France has allowed and the first in the run of play. The other was a penalty kick by Denmark in the first round.

Stunned from their shell, the French attacked, and -- in keeping with their defensive strength -- they evened the score a minute later off a defensive gem.

Thuram, playing on the right, stripped the ball from Croatian star Zvonimir Boban just into the penalty area. He nudged the ball to striker Youri Djorkaeff, then twirled and took the ball on a great give-and-go and tied it from 18 yards.

" What was fatal was to concede a goal within the same minute," Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "They drew all their strength from that."

Thuram scored the winner in the 70th minute, this time with the help of playmaker Zinedine Zidane.

The star midfielder nicknamed "Zizou" sent a cross to Thuram's right foot. The 26-year-old defender then spun his man around, with what looked like the help of a grabbed jersey, and sent in the winner from 18 yards.

He was stunned. His teammates and fans were overjoyed. And France was on its way to a World Cup title game at last.

This was a game all of France wanted to attend, and 77,000 got inside, along with about 300 Croatian fans in red and white, packed into a corner that looked like a bloodshot checkered flag.

France dominated the early going, from the fourth minute when Zidane unleashed a shot from just above the penalty arc off a nifty back pass from Djorkaeff. It zoomed wide.

After hardly crossing midfield, Croatia filled the final 10 minutes of the half with scoring chances, the best a left-foot shot from 10 yards by Aljosa Asanovic in the 36th minute that was just wide. There also was a 15-yard volley over the bar by defender Bilic four minutes later.