Brazil 0 France 1: Zidane regains mastery to tame Brazil
Pele looked bereft. His face was a mix of crushing disappointment and bewildered frustration. But when he spoke he articulated what everyone had witnessed. "Zidane is the master," he said. "Over the past 10 years, there's been no-one like him, he has been the best player in the world."
On Saturday evening, in Frankfurt, Zinedine Zidane was that again. There was something almost beatific in his performance. From the moment he walked slowly on to the pitch, with his eyes raised heavenwards, to when he finally departed, the first French player to leave following the final whistle, he was serene.
It was as if he was working in his own universe, on his own level. No one else came close to touching him, no one else appeared to be even playing the same game. And to think it could have been his 103rd and final appearance for France. Two years after he retired, only to return last autumn to lead his country to this tournament, Zidane, aged 34, will finally step down when their involvement in the competition ends.
"We don't want to stop now," he said afterwards. "This is so beautiful. We want it to carry on." France needed a "great match", Zidane added. He gave them that greatness. He did not so much roll back the years as banish them. There was no sign of age, of tiredness, of waning powers. Everything he did he did brilliantly, beautifully.
"Unfortunately for us he had a great match," the Brazilian midfielder Kaka, one of the many exalted names eclipsed by Zidane, said. "He's a truly great player. The fact that he's retiring is a great loss for the world of football."
In the press seats the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, commentating for French television, could barely contain himself. He, too, was lost in the emotion.
For France it was 1998 relived. Then, too, they were inspired by Zizou, with two headed goals, as they beat Brazil in the final in Paris. That was the last match in a World Cup finals that Brazil had lost. But 11 straight victories for the champions came to a shuddering halt this weekend and, with it, France became the first country to have beaten them three times in the World Cup (the other defeat came in the quarter-finals in 1986 on penalties). Brazil also failed to reach the last four for the first time since 1990.
Their coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, looked broken. A decision will be made on his future "in the next few days", but he is unlikely to remain in place having overseen an unconvincing campaign and faced fierce criticism over his team selections and tactics. But he, too, highlighted Zidane. "He made the difference, even more than in 1998," Parreira said. "This was probably his best performance in the last eight years. He showed a lot of personality and creativity."
There was another piece of history, and a strange one at that. Thierry Henry's 57th-minute goal, calmly and expertly volleyed in at the far post from a free-kick, was the first time that the striker had ever scored from a Zidane assist. With 184 caps between them, and 36 goals for Henry, that is an astonishing statistic and one that has preyed on everyone's minds.
But such constraints are now banished. France feel liberated. Their turgid progress through the group stages, following on from their sorry qualifying campaign and their abject defence of the title four years ago, feels like a very, very long time ago. After the rousing defeat of Spain, beating Brazil has brought the confidence flooding back. It was all they lacked.
"I know few players have ever won two World Cups but we are capable of it," said Patrick Vieira, one of six survivors from 1998. He was also full of praise for Zidane. "You only have to look at Zidane in training to know that he is still in a great physical shape but he has made his decision to retire and we respect that," he said while Henry added: "Zizou played so well. He drove us on."
The contrast with Ronaldinho could not have been sharper. This was supposed to be the 26-year-old's World Cup yet he leaves it having failed to make any impression whatsoever. Partly he was hampered by Brazil's unbalanced formation but such a great player should have been able to rise above that. In the end he was simply bypassed and looked desperately short of confidence. It's over a year since he scored for his country.
Hopefully, Brazil will now regroup and build their team around him, give him the platform he deserves, and also continue to encourage Robinho. Despite their ageing side they have, as ever, a bright future.
But, suddenly, France do too. In Franck Ribéry and Florent Malouda they had vibrancy and youth to add to their experience while William Gallas was formidable in defence.
Brazil rarely looked like scoring. Even a desperate late flurry was repelled while, for France, Henry missed with a header, Vieira with another and Ribéry was swiftly denied by goalkeeper Dida before Louis Saha wasted a late opportunity.
They were, indeed, the worthiest of winners and will now meet Portugal in Munich on Wednesday. "We're not here to dream. We're here to achieve," Henry said.
That's true but, with Zidane back to his best, they can still provide fantasy football.
Brazil (4-2-2-2): Dida; Cafu (both Milan), Lucio (Bayern Munich), Juan (Bayer Leverkusen), Roberto Carlos (Real Madrid); Gilberto Silva (Arsenal), Ze Roberto (Bayern Munich); Kaka (Milan), Juninho Pernambucano (Lyon); Ronaldinho (Barcelona), Ronaldo (Real Madrid). Substitutes used: Adriano (Internazionale) for Juninho, 63; Cicinho (Real Madrid) for Cafu, 76; Robinho (Real Madrid) for Kaka , 79.
France (4-5-1): Barthez (Marseilles); Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Gallas (Chelsea), Thuram (Juventus), Abidal (Lyon); Ribéry (Marseilles), Makelele (Chelsea), Vieira (Juventus), Zidane (Real Madrid), Malouda (Lyon); Henry (Arsenal). Substitutes used: Govou (Lyon) for Ribéry, 77; Wiltord (Lyon) for Malouda, 81; Saha (Manchester United) for Henry, 86.
Booked: Brazil Cafu (25), Juan (44), Ronaldo (45), Lucio (75); France Sagnol (74), Saha (87), Thuram (88).
Referee: L Medina Cantalejo (Spain)
Man of the match: Zidane.
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