Eight years ago, they were the hosts and their march to the final was heavily accentuated by huge public expectation at home. Eight days ago, they were written off into the depths of despair. Still France stood up, made themselves count and suddenly are just one step away from yet another World Cup title. This is the stuff great sporting folklore are made of.
Wednesday’s semi-final between France and Portugal also had an underlying theme ' a battle between two great footballers. Both teams tried their best to help their respective captains take a last shot at the ultimate glory. In the end, luck favoured the French and Zinedine Zidane had the last laugh, while Luis Figo returned disappointed, a match away from his ‘dream’ final.
True, the France-Portugal encounter didn’t reach the heights of the first semi-final between Italy and Germany. The speed and free-flowing spirit, which scorched the Dortmund pitch on Tuesday, was missing in the second semi-final. But the match had its own sentiment and bearing on the football lovers across the globe because of Zidane and Figo’s presence.
It was also a match between the experienced and youth. I must say, tactically, France succeeded in slowing down the game, frustrating the more adventurous Figo & Co. and hoping Thierry Henry to make one of his typical breakaway moves.
The plot unfolded in accordance to their plan when Henry earned the penalty in the 33rd minute. It was a 50-50 decision and the referee could have easily ignored the French striker’s fall following Ricardo Carvalho’s challenge.
It really amazes me how senior and professional players like Henry are taking resort to play-acting for earning free-kicks. His clever fall inside the box must have duped the referee, but it is honesty and not such gamesmanship that makes you a hero in public eyes.
It’s sad to see that when his teammate Zidane is leading by example how football could be beautiful through a clean, unadulterated display, Henry consigned himself to influencing the referee through other means. I have no way of describing Zidane. He just keeps amazing us by dint of his inspirational leadership, surreal vision and breathtaking elegance.
Against the Portuguese, he was heavily marked and so, we couldn’t see much of his artistry on the pitch. But the way he took the penalty epitomised the bold and beautiful face of the resurgent French.
God also gave Figo chances, but he failed to capitalise on them. In the 78th minute, Barthez failed to grasp a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick and in the follow-through, the Portugal captain came up with an atrocious header from close which flew over the bar. He looked a bit tense. Perhaps playing with an injury had its toll and therefore wasn’t quite effective with his delivery.
But Ronaldo played his best game on Wednesday night. He was booed by the crowd every time he touched the ball, but his sprint down the flank was always a danger to the French backline.
Deco and Costinha also disappointed me. Their suspension for the England match means they had precious rest before the semi-final. Yet they failed to deliver when they were required most and with their flop show, Portugal were a shadow of their self. I still wonder how Figo missed the target from such a close range. Perhaps this is what we call champions’ luck.
Surely, the win over Brazil has given France the much-needed confidence and suddenly, all the old horses like Zidane, Vieira, Makelele and Thuram are looking young. And you never know if they are destined to add another twist to the drama.