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
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
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
Carvalho had 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."