By Ridge Mahoney
To stop a most remarkable streak required a gritty team on a great run of its own led by a flickering star not yet willing to be dimmed.
France, mired in self-doubts in the run-up to the World Cup and a surprise runner-up finisher in group play behind Switzerland, knocked off Portugal, 1-0, to reach the final Sunday in Berlin.
The Portuguese were beaten on a Zinedine Zidane penalty kick yet were marginally superior over the 90 minutes. Cristiano Ronaldo's mazy dribbles mystified the French again and again, but seldom did they produce a clearcut scoring chance and a shove on him by Willy Sagnol in the box might have been whistled but wasn't.
Thus was ended Luiz Felipe Scolari's 12-match unbeaten streak in World Cups. With his native Brazil, he won seven straight games and the title in 2002, and he'd taken Portugal to four straight outright wins and a victory over England on penalty kicks in Germany. But the French, once out of group play, have run the table impressively against Spain, Brazil and Portugal.
Just as vital as Zidane to the French cause was their other 34-year-old, defender Lilian Thuram, who earned Man of the Match honors with dozens of headed clearances and fierce tackles and impassioned pleas. Portugal took 12 shots to France's five, but only two long-distance shots that the unpredictable Fabien Barthez bobbled were real threats.
Alarm aplenty arose with Ronaldo on the ball. He simply sliced through the French, but his inability to link with teammates, especially lone striker Pauleta, prevented shots from prime scoring distance. On the lone occasion they did connect, Pauleta fired a hard shot that Barthez covered.
Luis Figo, a majestic figure working the wings and sliding into the middle when he wasn't beseeching Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda (yes, the referee of the infamous USA-Italy match). It was a Figo cross that Ronaldo lunged for five minutes after Larrionda correctly ruled that Ricardo Carvalhohad tripped Thierry Henry in the area for the penalty Zidane converted.
Sagnol did have his arms on Ronaldo, yet the fact he lunged forward, rather than jumped straight up, might have convinced Larrionda the brilliant 21-year-old was trying to sell one. The ball flew two feet over Ronaldo's head, Larrionda didn't buy and furious shouts from the Portuguese players and shrill whistles from the noisy Portuguese corner of Allianz Arena didn't deter him.
Once the most acclaimed member of the "Golden Generation" that twice won FIFA U-20 titles under Carlos Queiroz, Figo had labored valiantly, and occasionally resorted to deception, in his last quest for a major trophy. Two years ago, as host, Portugal lost the final of the European Championship to Greece; last night, they were just as good as France but simply not as lucky.
Carvalho's whip-tackle was certainly a penalty, Sagnol's shove was a maybe.
"We have to be very proud of what we have done up to now and we can leave here with our heads held high," said Figo. "That's how football is: sometimes your opponents aren't better than you, but they win, and France took advantage of the opportunity that they had. We had a few chances and we weren't as clinical."