Originally created 07/11/98

World Cup final crowns King of the World



PARIS -- With as much as a third of the planet watching, Brazil wants to show it's King of the World in soccer, the game closest to its heart and soul. France would like to be King of the World -- period.

Soccer for decades has personified Brazil, where it is a way of life more than a sport. The French, suddenly within reach of the treasured World Cup, see it as a means to heal rifts and restore glory.

"That little ball has done a lot for humanity ---- and for France," said Philippe Debarge, a laid-back Parisian landscaper who scoffs at blind patriotism but suddenly finds himself very proud to be French.

"Reaching the finals has unified us," he said. "Arab and black slum kids share something with rich whites. I see now why this game is so important to so many people everywhere."

France's frenzy over reaching the final against Brazil on Sunday was heavily "cocorico," a term imitating a rooster that means celebrating Frenchness.

The victory energized a nation fraught with self-doubt over the growing dominance of European union and American accents in an old world the French did much to shape.

A grand beau geste, winning the golden trophy in their brand new stadium, with the whole world watching, would please the French no end. And if they fail, at least they had the last crack at Brazil.

"Of course, we'd love to win at this time in our history," Debarge said, typifying a general mood. "But to play such a beautiful team is already something. Win or lose, it's wonderful."

For Brazil, a loss is unthinkable. This is a century-ending chance to win a fifth World Cup in a sport that Brazilians live for.

The country stops dead during a match. After each of their early round wins, fans left the stadium looking troubled amid the jubilance. All else was preliminary to the final.

"We stank," muttered Luciana Alvez, a Sao Paulo lawyer, after Norway beat Brazil. Her team had already qualified for the next round, but she was scared. "If we play like this, we're dead."

Brazilians flew over by the tens of thousands, and their yellow shirts fill the stands. Their full-body cheers ripple like waves, perfectly timed and choreographed, punctuated by deafening drums.

A referee's call, or an opponent's foul, is instantly chastised by a stadiumwide chant. Each fan has strategic advice. Brazil is a nation of 120 million soccer coaches.

Before and after each game, joyful carnival music reminds everyone else that soccer may be serious, but it's also fun.

The French have always been ambivalent toward soccer, more intellectual than passionate about it. They have limited practice at winning and a scant tradition of displaying popular passions.

After the victory against Croatia in the semifinals, team captain Didier Deschamps criticized the dark-suited French VIPs in the stadium who, he said, acted as if they had just come from a funeral.

"That better not happen Sunday," he said. "We don't want to hear only 90 minutes of samba."

But, at this World Cup, Frenchmen outnumber the Brazilians considerably, and wild support is assured in bars and cafes and living rooms all over France.

If many people first looked with skepticism at a gigantic event that would fill their streets with sandwich-eating foreigners, most have now caught the fever. Grandeur is at stake.

Real French soccer lovers, from the beginning, dreamed of this final showdown. Brazilians master skills they most admire: dazzling footwork to control the ball, daring assaults and thoughtful teamwork.

Above all, French fans believe it is finally their turn.

"This Cup belongs to us," midfielder Youri Djorkaeff declared early on. "Our team was born for this competition."

Frenchmen remember that the World Cup scoring record ---- 13 goals ---- belongs to their own Just Fontaine. That was 1958, when Brazil beat France in the semifinals.

France scored the first World Cup goal back in 1930. Frenchmen thought up the idea of organized world soccer, and they made it happen.

The last World Cup here was in 1938, when Mussolini's Italy eliminated France, won the tournament and then helped Germany take over the country.

"This day is magic," sociologist Michele Tribalat said after the semifinal, as she watched people pour into the streets. "It's the ideal incarnation of our melting pot."

Anti-immigrant whites screamed praise for Lilian Thuram, the black fullback who scored both goals against Croatia. Arabs and blacks howled in defense of Laurent Blanc, a white player ejected for a dubious foul.

And in every city and a lot of villages, Frenchmen got together and sang La Marseillaise like they meant it.