A lame duck manager with dwindling credibility among his players, an iconic captain fighting the ravages of age and one brilliant, moody striker. Sound familiar? The travails of France may have startling parallels with England's recent adventures but the fact that tomorrow in Berlin Les Bleus contest the World Cup final is testament to the most extraordinary international renaissance of recent times.
The other contender for comeback of the year is their opposition, Italy. From the disintegration of Serie A has been born a team of staggering courage, one that looks like a finely honed club side - not a collective of players contemplating the dissolution of their national game. This World Cup final is an absorbing retrospective on a great era, an ending rather than a beginning. But an ending that celebrates Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thu-ram and Claude Makelele, that gives centre stage to Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo and perhaps Alessandro Del Piero, promises to be a spectacular goodbye to Germany 2006.
The story of these two sides, and their journey to Berlin, is one that informs every aspect of tomorrow's game. There are Zidane's France, who operate virtually independently of their bizarre, mistrusted coach Raymond Domenech. And against them are Marcello Lippi's Italy, a beautifully drilled team, rich in experience but loyal to a coach who has lifted them out of the mire of the government investigation into Italian football.
On vit ensemble, on meurt ensemble. We live together, we die together. It has been the rallying call that France's players say has symbolised their return from desperate draws against Switzerland and South Korea in the first round. And if that sounds a touch dramatic, remember that France's 1998 World Cup winning team celebrated every victory with a group rendition of Gloria Gaynor's camp hen night favourite "I Will Survive".
The draw with South Korea was France's nadir. Zidane, substituted in injury time, walked off without a glance at Domenech, mortally insulted, it was said, to be treated that way with two of his sons in the crowd. From then on the senior players took control. Zidane stopped talking to Domenech and the players rallied to beat Togo and qualify from Group G in second place.
Domenech's tactical decisions have been equally baffling. David Trezeguet has featured just twice and recently he has favoured Sidney Govou as a late substitute. The Lyon forward was plucked from his holidays to replace the injured Djibril Cissé, although his fitness and attitude have always been in question. Domenech alienated the French press by conducting only one interview about his squad selection - with his girlfriend, a television presenter.
Zidane remains an aloof figure within the squad, preferring to spend most of his time in his room in the team's castle hotel in Aerzen outside Hanover, like some medieval monarch. His court extends little further than his friend Willy Sagnol and he rarely speaks to the younger members of the team, but his influence is felt profoundly.
So how will France play? First by asking Thierry Henry to do a very different job to he one he does for Arsenal. For France he plays alone in attack, as he was asked to do after Jens Lehmann's dismissal in the Champions' League final, and it requires a lot of self-sacrifice. That is not a virtue commonly associated with Henry but the general view is that it has been a beneficial experience for him and he has dealt with it well.
Henry's reward has been three goals in six games and tomorrow he goes one step further than in 1998, when he featured in every match except the final. The old criticism about him not scoring in the big games was seriously undermined by his winner against Brazil, one tomorrow will lay it to rest forever. There can be no greater test than Cannavaro in this kind of form, and if Henry finds himself one-on-one with a sight of goal he will hope it is the Everton old boy Marco Materazzi he has to beat rather than the Italy captain.
Cannavaro is arguably Italy's most important man tomorrow, a 32-year-old centre-back who is flourishing in the way that the great defenders of his country do in their senior years. All he has to do is mark Henry, read the warning signs when Zidane gets the ball and try to block from his mind the possibility that should he take the World Cup back to Rome, his club Juventus may be a Serie C team by then.
It is some burden to take into a World Cup final. Cannavaro began the tournament being reprimanded by the government-appointed body investigating the Italian match-fixing scandal after he expressed solidarity with Juve's discredited former chief executive, Luciano Moggi. The World Cup final will be Cannavaro's 100th cap and he played the 99th like a man inspired.
Lippi changed the way that Italy had intended to play, with Francesco Totti behind two strikers, adapting that as it became clear that the man from Roma was not as fit as had been hoped after recovering from a broken leg. Now Italy play with Totti behind Luca Toni, the Fiorentina striker who has managed just two goals in Germany despite a record of 81 in three seasons in Serie A.
Toni, 29, is something of a late developer, making his debut at the age of 27. The same goes for Pirlo. The 27-year-old Milan playmaker with a touch of the undertaker's gloom about him only made his international debut at 23 and tomorrow faces an intriguing battle with Makelele in midfield. Pirlo's pass set up Fabio Grosso's goal against Germany and the man known as "the Metronome" will be responsible for dictating the tempo of Italy's play.
Italian football also has a special relationship with Zidane, who played more than 150 games for Lippi's Juventus before his £44m move to Real Madrid in 2001. It was telling that Gennaro Gattuso said yesterday that they had no plans for the French maestro. "You don't stop Zidane," he said. "Maybe he stops himself if he is not in form. You have to try to control him and if you want to limit his effect you need a bit of luck and you need to make the sign of the cross." It was no longer the Italian way, Gattuso added, to commit a player to man-mark an opponent.
Zidane left Juventus with a cutting farewell from the club's late owner Gianni Agnelli who, having pinned the blame for the move on the influence of Zidane's Spanish wife Veronique, said it was not the Frenchman "who wore the trousers in his own house". The treatment Zidane receives from the Italian support tomorrow may well remind him of that slur but there is no telling what effect it had on such a private person.
The French veterans of 1998, Patrick Vieira in particular, have said that the experience of semi-final victory was different this time, that there was an exhausted silence in the changing room after the match and on the journey home. Likewise the Italians, who fear that the effort of eliminating Germany in the semi-final draws parallels with 1970, when they beat West Germany 4-3 at the same stage and were then eviscerated by Brazil in the final.
Both sides have taken their own particular path to redemption to reach Berlin tomorrow - which is what makes the 18th World Cup final such a match to savour.
The big stage Previous meetings
* 1938 World Cup - QF Italy 3 France 1
* 1978 WC - Group stage
Italy 2 France 1
* 1986 WC - Second round France 2 Italy 0
* 1998 WC - Quarter-final France 0 Italy 0 France won 4-3 on pens
* 2000 European Championship - Final
France (aet) 2 Italy 1
A world to play for: Key men from both sides on the battle to come
Gennaro Gattuso, ITALY MIDFIELDER
"You simply don't stop Zidane. He is one of the strongest players - when he has the ball you have to do the sign of the cross and hope he misses. He is the type of player that when he is 100 per cent he doesn't let you see the ball. It's just a case of magic - now you see the ball and now you don't. I just hope he doesn't have much energy left for the final. For a long time, Italian football has been linked to the catenaccio but things have changed and it's no longer the case that we focus on just defending and marking players one-on-one. If Zidane happens to play in my zone, then I will pick him up. If not, Andrea Pirlo will."
Willy Sagnol, FRANCE DEFENDER
"We don't have an iron defence. We have a very high-performing defensive block when everyone just sticks together. When you see Zizou [Zidane] and Thierry Henry defending rather than attacking, that's something that needs to be underlined. Everyone talks about what Zidane and Henry can do in attack, but there is not enough emphasis on their defensive work. I don't think we could ask Henry to defend like that all his career - he would be worn out - but in this sort of competition it's something we have to do. Titi does it very well and that's why I hope France will win and give him the victory he deserves."
Gianluigi Buffon, ITALY GOALKEEPER
"At this moment I feel very secure. I have no fear about defending my goal and am full of positive feelings. I swear that I have never been in this good form in my career. In front of me there is an unbreachable wall and my self-belief comes from those team-mates. Aside from his technical and tactical capabilities [coach Marcello] Lippi has an ability that I haven't seen in other coaches - he can really get 120 per cent out of you. Mentally, he is a club coach and with all the experience that he has you can get real satisfaction from working with him. He makes everyone feel important and part of the group."
Sidney Govou, FRANCE STRIKER
When I came here as the 23rd man it annoyed me that people were thinking, "He's not going to play".It was strange when I first arrived but when I started kicking a ball I felt immediately part of it and then I really got involved as a player. We are in relaxation mode, we are recuperating. We are taking things quietly, quietly. We are doing as we have after previous matches, recovering, letting out the emotions so we don't put pressure on ourselves earlier than we need to. I like to defend. I prefer to attack but I like to defend as well. I am ready and if I am to be used as a midfielder I will do what I am asked to do."Reuse content