Zidane the man as French old guard stun Brazil

DISCARDED by many as a team of old stagers when the World Cup started, France have rolled back the years in spectacular fashion and are now one match away from their target.

"July 9," coach Raymond Domenech, naming the date of the Berlin final, had kept saying when asked how far he wanted Les Bleus to go in the tournament.

If they beat Portugal in their semi-final on Wednesday in Munich, France will be there and have a chance to win their second world title after they stunned Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 final.

"The old men are still around," Domenech said after his team dumped champions Brazil 1-0 on Saturday night courtesy of a Thierry Henry goal and an inspired performance from a rejuvenated Zinedine Zidane.

Fittingly, the pair combined for the decisive goal after 57 minutes. Zidane floated over a beautiful free-kick from wide on the left, allowing the unmarked Henry to ghost in at the back post to volley high into the net from close range. The Brazil defence was at serious fault for giving the striker so much time and space at a set-piece.

"Of course this is fantastic, exciting and everything, but this is just a step forward," added Domenech. "What we want is the final and we have another match to win to get there."

Zidane, who produced his best performance in years on the Waldstadion pitch, looking more Brazilian than anybody else on it, shared his coach's view.

"We needed a great match and we delivered," said the gifted 34-year-old midfielder, who will retire after the finals and realises every match now could be his last.

"We don't want to stop now. This is so beautiful, we want it to carry on."

After looking his age in a sluggish start to the tournament, Zidane stepped up a gear in a convincing 3-1 win over Spain in the second round.

Against Brazil he was nothing short of magnificent. As well as creating Henry's winner, the vision, effortless close control, delicate turns and ability to create space that made Zidane one of football's greatest players were all on display.

"Unfortunately for us he had a great match," said Brazil midfielder Kaka. "He's a truly great player. The fact that he's retiring is a great loss for the world of football."

The driving force behind a team that went from also-rans to world champions in 1998 and European champions in 2000, 'Zizou' had depressed an entire nation by announcing two years ago that he was retiring from international football.

With the team he blessed for over a decade struggling to qualify for the finals in Germany, the balding wizard came back for Les Bleus last year but looked only the shadow of his brilliant self until his scintillating show against Brazil.

"He didn't want to leave the World Cup stage on a failure," said French Federation Football president Jean-Pierre Escalettes, referring to the 2002 fiasco, when France were eliminated from the finals in Japan and South Korea without a managing to register a win or a goal from the group stage. "He was fantastic. He was the most Brazilian of all tonight. He did things he hadn't been doing for a long time. He's such a great player.

"Whatever happens next, a wonderful player will leave football in a wonderful way."

Like the rest of a team relying heavily on players past their prime, Zidane had started the tournament with sluggish displays and had feared he might have to leave by the back door.

Asked if Zidane's current form meant he should reconsider his retirement plans, Domenech did not give a direct answer but replied: "He's Zidane. He seems to be surprising you. He doesn't surprise us. We know what he is capable of and it's precisely because he knows he will be quitting soon that he wants to play to the very limits - he is not holding back in any way."

It's not only Zidane. Other stalwarts of the great France team who lifted the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and went on to win the European championship title two years later, notably Patrick Vieira, looked a few years younger on Saturday.

Believing in themselves, having fun together and playing as a team are the secrets behind an unexpected revival, the France players would tell you.

"This is not a miracle, not at all," said the Chelsea defender William Gallas. "This is a team effort."

The determination to restore pride after the disappointment four years ago also played a key role.

"We wanted to prove after what happened in 2002 that we were not rubbish," said Henry, living up to high expectations with three goals so far.

To go even further, Domenech said, his players should follow Zidane's example.

"He's playing so well because he realises the end of his career is near and he is giving it all he has," the coach said. "I would like all the players to play the next match as if it were their last."

AC Milan midfielder Kaka, who had played a key role in his team reaching the quarter-finals but struggled against France, said: "We didn't play as Brazil and we have to apologise to everyone.

"We were never able to impose our rhythm against a French team that plays defensive football and gives you very little space and we lacked the aggressiveness to break them."

Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira refused to criticise his team after the world champions suffered a shock exit.

"We still haven't gone 24 hours and we are still licking our wounds," said Parreira, whose side were hot favourites to win a sixth world title.

"We're very sad. We wanted to win, but there's not going to be any witch-hunt. I'm not going to pick on any player. We've got the best players in the world and we're going to support them. Winning or losing, we do it together. It's difficult to explain the defeat. I don't have a conclusive answer."

The Brazilian media have already criticised the performances of the older players such as Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo. They also labelled FIFA world player of the year Ronaldinho, pictured, who failed to score at the tournament, as the biggest let-down.

Ronaldinho admitted after the defeat to France: "This was the biggest disappointment in football. It's not the time to say what we lacked or didn't lack during this tournament.

"It's clear that we all, from the goalkeeper to the last striker, would have wanted to do better to help Brazil go to the next round and defend the title."

Parreira, who led Brazil to their fourth World Cup title in 1994, would not comment on his future, saying it would be decided after returning home.

No Brazilian coach has kept the job after failing to win the World Cup, although the late Tele Santana, coach in 1982, quit and later returned for 1986. Parreira also commented on claims that the huge expectations and media interest in his side had made his task more difficult.

"It's very difficult to work with 800 people watching," he said of the Brazilian and international media corps who regularly flocked to training sessions. The expectation that was created was very big and they were measuring us by the expectation, not the reality."

Saturday's defeat was Brazil's first since they lost to Mexico at last year's Confederations Cup. Since then, they had played 14 internationals without losing.

It was also their first loss to a European side since they were beaten by Portugal in March 2003 and their sixth defeat in 53 games since Parreira, took over in January 2003.

Brazil: Dida, Cafu (Cicinho 76), Lucio, Juan, Carlos, Juninho (Adriano 63), Silva, Ze Roberto, Kaka (Robinho 79), Ronaldinho, Ronaldo. Subs not used: Cris, Emerson, Fred, Gilberto, Julio Cesar, Luisao, Mineiro, Ricardinho, Rogerio.

France: Barthez, Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Abidal, Ribery (Govou 76), Makelele, Vieira, Zidane, Malouda (Wiltord 81), Henry (Saha 85). Subs not used: Boumsong, Chimbonda, Coupet, Dhorasoo, Diarra, Givet, Landreau, Silvestre, Trezeguet.

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