As farewell parties go, they will not come any more spectacular than Zinedine Zidane's sign-off this Sunday. The old, brooding maestro of French football dispatched the winning penalty last night and come Berlin on Sunday he will bid au revoir on the greatest stage of all: by leading France into the World Cup final against Italy.
What a way to go, and what a player. It is eight years since Zidane scored two goals in France's World Cup final victory over Brazil in Paris, and while the hard yards may have become more difficult, the subtle refinements of his technique endure. He did not dominate last night, but his influence loomed over this match and, when the crucial moment arrived, no player's nerve could have held better.
Call it a masterclass to Englishmen everywhere on how to put the ball past a Portuguese goalkeeper from 12 yards. Zidane took barely two steps before he swept the ball past Ricardo in the 32nd minute with barely a glimmer of emotion. He may have been eclipsed in the later stages by the perseverance of Cristiano Ronaldo but there is much to suggest that there is enough left in this 34-year-old for one great goodbye.
There was not much fuss from Zidane on the final whistle. His manager Raymond Domenech said that the player himself did not want Sunday's match to be billed as his last game, "just the World Cup final". There is something of the contrived eccentric about Domenech, but his description of Zidane's contribution to French football was beguiling: "He affords the French people dreams, but real dreams."
Not only Zidane will walk away from Les Bleus after Sunday but, Domenech was at pains to point out, so too will Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele. They are the golden oldies who were reinstated to put France's World Cup qualification back on track and they have made an astonishing impact. Makelele was exemplary last night, at 33 holding back the Portuguese midfield led by Deco.
This is a victory too for Domenech, whose guidance of this team has, at times, reduced relations with the French press to something like the depths endured by Sven Goran Eriksson as his regime crumbled to dust. Not so for Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose remarkable record of 12 straight World Cup finals victories with Brazil and Portugal came to a halt despite a performance of unlikely maturity from Ronaldo.
The Manchester United winger's first touch, and many of his subsequent ones, were loudly booed - no doubt by the many England fans who bought semi-final tickets in hope rather than expectation - but he still contributed a performance that soared above some of his less savoury moments on Saturday. As usual there were tears at the end and an accusation from the 21-year-old that the Uruguayan referee had failed to give him a penalty. It was around two first-half incidents that the game's little controversy centred. The second on 37 minutes concerned Ronaldo going down like a felled birch tree in the area for no reward. Television replays revealed him to have had little or no contact although Scolari said the official Jorge Larrionda had made a "mistake".
Five minutes earlier, the incident that led to France's penalty was an all-Premiership affair. Arsenal's Thierry Henry turned away from Chelsea's Ricardo Carvalho who just managed to clip one of those long legs sufficiently for the striker to go down.
Zidane slipped the penalty inside Ricardo's right post and, despite Henry's part in the process, there was scarcely any contact between the two men in the aftermath of the goal. Rumours persist that these two icons of French football have no great affection for one another and their artistic collaboration on the pitch is never quite what you imagine it should be.
Henry is unused to playing supporting role to any player, but this is turning into quite a season for him. First the Champions' League final, now the World Cup final, although Henry did not shine last night. Three minutes into the second half, he accelerated past Fernando Meira and into the area, yet the curling shot into the far corner that has become Henry's trademark was not struck cleanly enough to beat Ricardo.
As time ticked away, Scolari reconfigured his side into increasingly more attacking formations, Simao Sabrosa took Ronaldo's place on the left and the United man became the team's centre-forward.
On 77 minutes there should have been a booking for Patrick Vieira for a foul on Ronaldo but, in that split second of consideration that referee Jorge Larrionda gave, the Frenchman managed to stop him reaching for his pocket. Another yellow card and Vieira would not have played in the final. There seemed to be similar leniency towards Thuram, also on a booking, later on. Louis Saha, however, did not escape, he picked up a card and will miss the final.
There was enough time for Fabien Barthez, another survivor of 1998, to almost throw it away. It is remarkable that France have prospered with such an unreliable goalkeeper. He attempted to flip Ronaldo's free-kick upwards like a volleyball player but, as the loose ball dropped, Luis Figo headed it over the bar.
On another day, perhaps this could have been Figo's match. He was superb in the opening stages and, at 33, will not play in another tournament like this. But even he had to defer to his former Real Madrid team-mate Zidane - by Sunday night so too might the rest of the football world.Reuse content