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Rejuvenated France close to impossible dream
Patrick Vignal | July 02, 2006 20:04 IST
Discarded by many as a team of pensioners when the World Cup started, France [Images] have rolled back the years in spectacular fashion and are now one match away from their target.
"July 9," coach Raymond Domenech, naming the date of the Berlin final, had kept saying when asked how far he wanted Les Bleus to go in the tournament.
If they beat Portugal in their semi-final on Wednesday in Munich, France will be there and have a chance to win their second World title after they stunned Brazil [Images] 3-0 in the 1998 final.
"The old men are still around," Domenech said on Saturday after his team dumped champions Brazil 1-0 courtesy of a Thierry Henry [Images] goal and an inspired performance from a rejuvenated Zinedine Zidane.
"Of course this is fantastic, exciting and everything but this is just a step forward," the coach added. "What we want is the final and we have another match to win to get there."
Zidane, who produced his best performance in years on the Waldstadion pitch, looking more Brazilian than anybody else on it, shared his coach's view.
"Now we'll try to win a place in the final," said the gifted 34-year-old, who will retire after the finals and realises every match now could be his last.
"We don't want to stop now. This is so beautiful, we want it to carry on."
Like the rest of a team relying heavily of players past their prime, Zidane had started the tournament with sluggish displays and had feared he might have to leave by the back door.
"You're surprised but we're not," Domenech told reporters after Zidane recaptured his brilliant best with perfect timing to show France the way to the last four.
Not only Zidane but other stalwarts of the great France team that lifted the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and went on to win the European championship title two years later, notably Patrick Vieira, looked a few years younger on Saturday.
Believing in themselves, having fun together and playing as a team are the secrets behind an unexpected revival, the France players would tell you.
"This is not a miracle, not at all," said defender William Gallas. "This is a team effort."
The determination to restore pride after the 2002 fiasco, when France were eliminated without a win or a goal from the group stage, also played a role.
"We wanted to prove after what happened in 2002 that we were not rubbish," said Henry, living up to high expectations with three goals so far.
To go even further, Domenech said, his players should follow Zidane's example.
"He's playing so well because he realises the end of his career is near and he is giving it all he has," the coach said.
"I would like all the players to play the next match as if it were their last."