Hameln, July 6:
At the start, it seemed like an uninspired trek down Memory Lane. France has since turned its World Cup journey into a celebration.
Stocked with veterans from the 1998 championship team, France struggled on old legs early on but when it got hold of a whiff of another final, Les Bleus played like bygone days. Zinedine Zidane, who retires on Sunday, has dominated as he did eight years ago.
â€œWe all have to die togetherâ€ has been the motto of an aging team that has several other players who will wear Franceâ€™s jersey for the last time on Sunday. Now comes Italy and the final, another matchup full of fond memories. After all, France beat Italy 2-1 for the Euro 2000 title, its last major achievement.
â€œThis is it. Because we really went through all the effort, we will try to get the cup,â€ said Zidane. â€œIt will be extremely difficult but we have the means, and the desire to do it,â€ he told Canal Plus. For the third game in a row, Zidane, 34, inspired Les Bleus and, with the coolest of penalties, beat expert penalty stopper Ricardo on Wednesday to give France a 1-0 win over Portugal.
Coach Raymond Domenech however, does not want the final to be some sort of testimonial to perhaps the greatest player of the last decade. â€œSince the start, he has proven that this is not his retirement party,â€ said Domenech. â€œThis will be the final of the WC and it is exactly how he wants it.â€
In 1998, Zidane scored twice in a 3-0 roll over Brazil to become the iconic player of the event. If he wins again on Sunday, it will be no different.
In this seasoned team, defender Lilian Thuram and midfielder Claude Makelele will also play their last match. â€œIf the players think about this and want to surpass themselves, then so much the better,â€ Domenech said. â€œEveryone will do that little bit more for Zizou, Lilian, Makelele and all those that announced their retirement.â€
Defensive midfielder Patrick Vieira also played the 1998 final and striker Thierry Henry, who forced Wednesdayâ€™s penalty, was part of the team too. The final comes after an amazing turnaround. For long, the team was burdened by the â€œghosts of Senegal.â€ The African nation beat France in the opener in 2002 and Les Bleus never recovered.
For the first time, the defending champion failed to make the second round and did not score a single goal. It weighed heavy on a team fearful there would be a repeat of 2002 here. And it struggled in the group stage, drawing with Switzerland and South Korea. It advanced to the second round only after beating lightly regarded Togo.
At that point, the weight fell from their shoulders and they played like a team set free. It rallied to beat Spain 3-1 with a convincing second-round performance, and played a brilliant match to eliminate five-time champion Brazil 1-0 in the quarter-finals. Under duress from the media and the public for the past year, the players bonded and it is paying dividends now.
â€œFirst and foremost, everybody sticks together,â€ said Henry. â€œThey all come back and fight together. When we have to make the difference, we do so.â€ And 1998 coach Aime Jacquet gives it all his full blessing as he went back in search of lost time. â€œIt is true that it is similar. The spirit and identity are the same,â€ he said.