July 2nd, 2006 • 11:18 am
Well, I guess we know where that word incroyable comes from now, don’t we? (By we, I mean English people who don’t understand a word of French, of course.)
It comes from the 2006 World Cup! The world cup where no one in their right mind could imagine the France team going anywhere—and look where they are now! It is really, truly incredible indeed.
Seriously, though, it wasn’t totally unexpected. The über-favourites Brazil had not had a particularly impressive tournament so far. They had won all their games, of course, but not in an impressive fashion. In the round-of-16 game against Ghana, for example, they had two goals that were quite clearly offside, and there were a couple more decisions that went their way when they could just as easily gone the other way. But that’s what you get for being favourites, I guess: a easy ride—sometimes misleadingly easy.
France, on the other hand, had definitely not been impressive at all in their first few games, where they seemed to just scrape by (and did so literally from a mathematical point of view) and continue to play with the so-so form that had seen them struggle significantly during the qualifying games played during the 2004–2006 period.
But then, somehow, things started to click. The team started to gel, and gave us a pretty impressive performance against Spain. And now this… Instead of fatigue and lack of inventiveness, the team is now demonstrating composure, confidence, patience, and maturity. Somehow Domenech appears to have just stumbled upon the right combination of experience and youth.
Now, maybe I should give him more credit. We don’t know, after all, what takes place on the training ground and in these sessions behind closed doors. But I don’t think Domenech himself can deny that, until recently, there were significant tensions within the team, and that the performance was somewhat reflective of that tension. You just need to rewind to the last quarter of the game against Korea, with a dejected Zidane throwing his captain’s arm band on the ground after being substituted… Maybe he was mostly pissed off with himself, but it still didn’t look all that reassuring.
I suppose I also should give Thierry Henry more credit in this World Cup than I have until now. He has a pretty difficult position all alone up front, and has to do a lot of work without the ball, hoping for a mistake or breakthrough that will send him clear on goal.
I still don’t see why, late in the game, when he tried to play a more defensive role and the referee called a few free kicks against him, he had to act all surprised and shocked, as if he wasn’t deliberately fouling the opposition to try and slow down the game. This part of his attitude still needs to be adjusted. If you deliberately foul the opposition in a rather blatant fashion, even if it’s within the laws of the game, you should be humble enough to just walk away from the action without complaint, and consider yourself lucky not to have received a caution.
But other than that, his goal was truly beautifully taken. It looked simple enough, with him being unmarked and everything, but I still suspect it would have been just as easily to hit the ball too hard and send it over the bar. So it was a great finish on a great free kick by Zidane—which apparently is the first ever Zidane assist on a Henry goal for France. Not a bad time to break your mutual duck, I guess!
Zidane himself was truly magnificent throughout the game. It was probably one of his best-ever performances for his country, and the identity of the opposition and the circumstances made it even more special. The range of technical skill was simply astounding. He might not have the legs he had in his twenties, but he was never a speed demon, and we all knew that he was still capable of what he delivered yesterday. It is still remarkable that it happened the way it did, against a full-strength Brazil side, in what could have been the last game of his career, in the quarter-final of a World Cup where France was never expected to go far beyond the group stage, if at all.
As the whole, the game wasn’t really memorable, simply because Brazil failed to live up to the expectations of their fans and of the world-wide football audience in general. Brazil dominated the first 10 minutes, but then France got into its confident groove, and had the upper hand. Brazil was indeed lucky to still have 11 men at the half, since Juan could easily have been sent off for denying Vieira a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
In the second half, Brazil conceded and then never managed to click and reverse the momentum. There were a few dicey moments near the end, as would be expected under the circumstances. But ultimately, Barthez didn’t have all that much to do, and players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Kaka never looked like they had what it would have taken to take the game by the scruff of the neck and really threaten France. The game was reminiscent of both the 1998 World Cup final and the 2006 Champions’ League final between Arsenal and Barcelona—except of course that, in the case of Barcelona, the team’s manager had one more ace up his sleeve and was able to make a substitution that did alter the course of the game and ultimately led to Arsenal’s defeat.
So, what now? England’s tournament was ended by Scolari once more, with a Rooney red card and yet more Lampard misses thrown in for good measure. (Strangely enough, England performed better when they were down to 10 men without Rooney, but it still wasn’t really enough to convince anyone that they could go any farther in this tournament.) Which means that France will get to play Portugal in the semi-final next Wednesday.
At this stage, there is no reason to doubt that the French team can actually go all the way and lift the trophy. They have obviously gathered enough momentum, and the other three teams left in the competition all have their flaws. It still will take two additional performances of the same caliber, and now France will no longer play with the benefit of being considered the “underdogs.” But it’s safe to say that the team has rediscovered its form, and that the French fans have rediscovered a team that they want to support with unconditional dedication.