Originally created 07/12/98

World's focus on Brazil, France in Cup final



PARIS -- Imagine if the Super Bowl, Final Four, Kentucky Derby and Daytona 500 were all held on the same day.

Add nationalism, the fervor of fans whose outlook on life often depends on the outcome, and the realization this day won't come again for four years.

That's the World Cup final: a game, a celebration, an obsession.

"It is the game of the century," Brazil coach Mario Zagallo says of his team's matchup Sunday with France at the space-age Stade de France outside Paris.

"It is the game we all have dreamed of," adds French defender Lilian Thuram.

More than a billion people will watch on television as Brazil goes for its fifth championship -- nobody else has more than three -- and France seeks its first in the tournament it created in the 1920s.

Brazil certainly has history on its side: It is the only team to win the title outside its hemisphere. And when it did so in 1958, it beat host Sweden in the final.

Zagallo was there, as a player. He also played for the 1962 champions, and was coach of the 1970 winner. Four years ago, he was an assistant to Carlos Alberto Parreira.

"He has what we call in Brazil `hot feet,"' says Pele, the game's all-time greatest player and a winner of three championships. "The luck follows Mario Zagallo."

It certainly helps that he is Brazilian. No matter where the World Cup is held, Brazil is a contender, often a favorite. It entered this tournament as the odds-on choice and nothing has changed. Not even with the final against the host nation.

"In the stadium there will be 80,000 fans cheering for France," Zagallo says. "But our players know that when they walk onto the field, in their hearts 160 million Brazilians will be walking with them."

Besides, the French haven't felt the waves of support in the new stadium that they expected.

"There are too many people inside the stadium in suits," captain Didier Deschamps says. "We do not get a great feeling of support. The people who could have made the difference are outside. You could see our substitutes trying to motivate the crowd.

"I just hope they'll wake up for the final. We don't want to hear the sound of samba for 90 minutes."

To combat that, the French must remain tough on defense. Brazil will attack all game, trying to penetrate on the flanks with Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cesar Sampaio and Bebeto. Or through the middle with two-time player of the year Ronaldo.

France, meanwhile, might back off its assaults a bit, because a truly wide-open game favors the South Americans. And the French will be without their best defender, Laurent Blanc, who was suspended for shoving a Croat in the face in the semifinals.

"It is my personal catastrophe, but if the red card had contributed to France not reaching the final, I would never have been able to forgive myself," Blanc says.

The French can be forgiven if they are nervous Sunday. They've never been this far, they are facing the defending champion and soccer's most powerful force, and Brazil improved as it advanced through the tournament.

"We are peaking at the right time to win the World Cup," midfielder Rivaldo says.

Still, it took a penalty kick shootout for the Brazilians to get here. The Dutch played them even for 120 minutes, and at times outplayed them.

Of course, the Netherlands looked as strong as anyone in the field before its semifinal loss. The French haven't met anyone as balanced or dangerous.

Not that France drew a pass to get into the final. It won all three of its first-round games before struggling to beat Paraguay 1-0 in overtime and Italy in a shootout. In the semifinals, Croatia scored in the first minute of the second half, but Thuram came right back with a goal, then got the winner.

In Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff, the French have two reliable playmakers. What they have lacked is a finishing touch, with only defenders hitting the net since the opening round.

With Blanc gone, they probably won't push the defenders upfield -- unless they fall behind.

The last two World Cup finals were dull affairs, with West Germany beating Argentina 1-0 on a penalty kick with six minutes left in 1990, and Brazil needing a shootout to defeat Italy after a 0-0 tie in 1994.

The last time Brazil met France in the World Cup was 12 years ago, a classic offensive match with enough action in 120 minutes to satisfy anyone. It also ended in a shootout, which France won 4-3.

"We will take a similar result," Thuram says.

Zagallo, however, is extremely confident that won't happen.

"I've never been so sure that we're going to win the title," he says. "The green and yellow flag will fly again in Europe after 40 years. The World Cup is safe in our hands with our faith and our courage."