- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

FRANKFURT, Germany — France stole Brazil’s rhythm, its style, even its samba.

Along the way, the French also knocked the defending champions out of the World Cup.

The experienced and savvy French ousted the tournament favorites 1-0 in a stunningly one-sided quarterfinal game yesterday. Tacked onto France’s 3-0 victory in the 1998 title match — the last time Brazil lost in the World Cup — it’s clear the Brazilians have a nemesis at soccer’s highest level.

The French were so much better at playing Brazil’s natural, free-flowing game that the result never seemed in doubt after Thierry Henry volleyed in captain Zinedine Zidane’s free kick in the 57th minute. The only magical moves on the field were French; the only dancing in the stands was being done by Les Bleus’ ecstatic fans.

“This was not a lucky victory,” Henry said. “I’ve always said this World Cup isn’t about us dreaming of winning, but I have to say this victory is the stuff of dreams. Now we want to go all the way.”

First they go to the semifinals against Portugal on Wednesday in Munich. With Germany playing Italy in Tuesday’s semifinal in Dortmund, this is the first all-European final four since 1982 in Spain.

Much of the credit goes to Zidane, who weaved, bobbed and spun his way through the Brazilian midfield, looking more like the three-time FIFA world player of the year than someone leaving the sport.

It was Zidane who lifted his nation past Brazil in the final eight years ago, scoring two goals for France’s only title. Since then, Brazil had won 11 straight World Cup games and another championship — its fifth — and this was deemed its best squad in years. Brazil’s streak of three straight finals, two of them wins, also was snapped.

“I did not prepare for this and no one in our delegation prepared for this,” coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said.

Indeed, it was a shocking exit for the tournament favorite. The Brazilians had just one shot on goal and allowed huge defensive gaps all night. The French eclipsed Brazil’s galaxy of stars with crisp passing, aggressive tackling and superior play in the air. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka were either invisible or inept.

“It’s a sad day for us, though we will overcome this,” Ronaldo said. “They played better and deserved the victory.”

In the final minutes, Brazil desperately pressed forward, with Ronaldinho surfacing at last and barely missing on a free kick. Two more attacks yielded nothing as France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez screamed at his teammates to hold on.

Barthez grabbed a floater by Lucio, and the clock ran out as he made his goal kick, setting off a wild celebration in which the France players mobbed each other while jumping in a circle. As the dazed Brazilians left the field, the winners headed to the corner where their fans were waving flags and taking pictures — and savoring a magnificent victory.

Brazil and France have played three times since the 1998 final, with France winning 2-1 in the 2001 Confederations Cup in South Korea and then playing to a 0-0 draw in a 2004 friendly in Paris.

Obviously, intimidation was not a factor for the French — least of all Zidane, who orchestrated a short passing game that looked positively Brazilian. Several of his superb touches led to dangerous opportunities for Henry, Patrick Vieira, Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda.

“We had to produce a massive performance and that’s what we’ve done,” Zidane said.

France began the tournament so poorly it appeared headed for a first-round exit like four years ago. But after France squeaked past the first round, Zidane helped his team dominate Spain in a 3-1 second-round victory and then conquered the mighty Brazilians in the quarterfinals.

“As soon as he touched the ball tonight, I knew he was going to have one of those matches,” teammate Sidney Govou said.

Toward the end of the first half, Ronaldo and Juan both drew yellow cards trying to slow down the French offense masterminded by “Zizou.”

Juan pulled down Vieira on a near breakaway after a brilliant feed by Zidane from midfield. It could have drawn a red card and ejection, but referee Luis Medina pulled out the yellow, setting up a free kick from 20 yards that Ronaldo blocked with his arm just outside the penalty area.

That drew a yellow for Brazil’s scoring star, but his team escaped a scramble near its goal as the half ended.

It was a temporary reprieve.

For all Zidane’s flowing play, it was his dead-ball cross following a foul that netted France’s goal.

About 30 yards out on the left wing, Zidane lofted an inward swinging cross. The Brazilians’ marking had been loose all game and this time they paid. Henry, completely free at the back post, met the ball with his right foot. Goalkeeper Dida had no chance.

In front of French President Jacques Chirac, France made Brazil look so ordinary — at times amateurish — that the yellow-clad Brazilians in the crowd even were whistling at their team late in the match.

Zidane, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have won eight of the last 10 FIFA world player of the year awards. Only Zidane displayed those skills yesterday.

“We don’t want to stop here,” Zidane said. “It’s so great that we want to carry on.”

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