Brazil 0 France 1: Zidane inspires French rebirth

Rematch of 1998 final sees same result as South Americans falter again on European soil
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The Independent Football

The world came to kneel at the feet of one player at this tournament. Instead it is another, touched by the gods, but apparently deserted by them also as he has grown older, who may once again take that crown.

Zinedine Zidane inspired France into Wednesday's second World Cup semi-final against Portugal with a wonderful, mesmerising performance. In doing so the 34-year-old not only delayed his second international retirement for at least one more appearance but eclipsed Ronaldinho and, with him, Brazil.

Zizou was simply sublime. In the contest of the play-makers there was only one victor. And he was, indeed, a perfect 10. At the end the French back-room staff assembled a guard of honour. Zidane was first through it. As the other players cavorted uncontrollably he was serene.

It was a richly deserved triumph for France, earned through Thierry Henry's second-half goal, from Zidane's free-kick and through a joie de vivre and belief that is now coursing through them. They defeated an abject Brazil, whose lack of ambition made a mockery of their favourites tag, their reputation, and their ability, and who attacked with any purpose only in the closing minutes.

The inquests will be long and hard and their coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, is unlikely to survive. It was the manner of their defeat that will hurt. A run of 11 straight victories on this stage came to a horrible, messy halt. For Ronaldinho this was supposed to be his World Cup. Instead he was simply a bemused observer. It was crushing.

France can now believe as Germany believes. The tournament victory of eight years ago, when they last met Brazil in this competition, can be repeated. They have every right to think so. Allez Les Bleus, Allez Les Vieux.

Zidane scored twice on that Parisian night and he was no less inspirational in Frankfurt, or against Spain in the previous round, as he led the oldest squad in the World Cup, with six survivors from 1998, into the last four. The bitter memories of the group stage exit four years ago have been banished.

Zidane set the challenge in the opening seconds, evading three defenders and dinking a pass marginally too far ahead of Henry. Thrillingly it appeared the Brazilians would match it. Ronaldinho twisted, turned and won a free-kick. For 20 minutes, the gauntlet was picked up.

But then, inexplicably, Brazil withdrew. They attempted to slow the tempo. It was too slow. They surrendered the initiative and with the French vibrant through their willing young wingers Franck Ribéry and Florent Malouda, they attacked. And attacked. And attacked.

Cafu and Roberto Carlos were terrorised. The Brazilians were committing error after error, hoofing the ball forward, failing to take any control. Their midfield was bypassed even though they had dropped Adriano and pushed Ronaldinho further forward. They did not feed him.

On half-time Zidane once again slipped away from three defenders and pushed the ball into the path of Patrick Vieira. As the midfielder ran through he was brought down by Juan. Only the presence of the covering Roberto Carlos meant the card was yellow and not red.

Brazil did not improve after the break either. France won another free-kick and Zidane floated it to Henry whose header drifted narrowly wide. The Arsenal striker then skipped past two Brazilians, only for his cross to be blocked. He back-heeled to Vieira. But he too was stopped.

Brazil's defending was becoming increasingly desperate until, finally, they were undone. Again Zidane took a free-kick. This time he whipped it with pace and the French piled forward. Lilian Thuram leapt highest, missed the ball but distracted the defenders. It arrived at Henry, at the back post, and he side-footed into the roof of the net.

The French continued to attack. Ribéry again bested Cafu only for his cross to deflect off Juan and slide just beyond the far post. The Marseilles winger then burst through the centre, forcing Dida to rush from goal and block as he shaped to shoot.

Parreira had to do something. He threw on Adriano and Robinho and, finally, they attacked. Fabien Barthez almost made a hash of a Ronaldo shot from distance, only for William Gallas brilliantly to divert the rebound, and then Ronaldinho won a free-kick right on the edge of the area. It was the 89th minute. He stood over it - and then sent the ball over the bar. The game was up. France stood firm.

"It is extraordinary to be one game away from the final," their coach Raymond Domenech said afterwards. "It's a great moment for me and my team. We are very, very happy but want to go beyond this." There's every reason to believe they will. Especially with the incomparable Zidane.