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France Ready for a Repeat

Soccer: With most hands from the 1998 World Cup winner back on deck, experience is seen as a strong point.

April 07, 2002|From Associated Press

PARIS — France, officially the best soccer team on the planet, must travel a difficult route to maintain that distinction.

At this year's World Cup in South Korea and Japan, the French will be missing the home-field advantage that greatly helped them beat everyone in 1998, including Brazil in the final.

France also has seen almost no competitive action in two years because it qualified automatically for the World Cup as defending champion. And one of its key players, attacking midfielder Robert Pires, is nearly certain to miss the event with a knee injury.

Pessimists might say France's good fortune is about to run out. But Zinedine Zidane isn't one of them.

"We realize we have a great team and a great chance of winning a second straight World Cup," the hero of France '98 says. "We don't fear any opponent."

Only Italy and Brazil have successfully defended World Cup titles. No nation has won the event more than two consecutive times.

Although "Les Bleus" will be playing far from home, they have some of the biggest stars from Europe's best clubs. And despite the lack of competitive pretournament action, the French team is ranked No. 1 in the world and remains one of the most experienced in soccer.

"It's a team that doesn't lose many matches, even away from home," says Jean-Jacques Vierne, a soccer writer at the magazine France Football who has covered the sport for 40 years. "And it's not a team that's in the process of reconstruction."

As in 1998, two-time FIFA player of the year Zidane is the centerpiece for France. The 29-year-old midfielder is enjoying an excellent season at Spanish club Real Madrid, which he joined last summer in a record $65 million transfer from Italy's Juventus. In international games, he remains the inspiration for the French attack.

Other top players include Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, Bayern Munich defender Bixente Lizarazu and the Arsenal trio of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord. Juventus striker David Trezeguet is one of the top scorers in the Italian league.

Years of playing together for France mean the big names don't crowd each other out when it comes to international matches.

"If you can't get on with players like Lizarazu and Zidane, you might as well give up," says Henry, one of France's top strikers.

Arsenal's fourth French international, Pires, tore a knee ligament in a club match last month and is almost certain to miss the World Cup. He was a key member of the national team, setting up the goal that won the 2000 European Championship.

Coach Roger Lemerre overcame the loss by partnering Henry with Trezeguet in France's 5-0 exhibition win against Scotland. The pair combined for three goals.

"Before Pires became a major player, we played without him," said Lemerre, who replaced Aime Jacquet as France's coach after the last World Cup. "So now we'll use other players with different qualities."

Another possible concern for Lemerre is age: Nine regulars will be between 30 and 34 by the start of the World Cup on May 31, with Zidane turning 30 during the competition.

However, many of the older players are on defense, where experience can make up for loss of speed, and almost all are still at their peak.

The biggest question mark hangs over 34-year-old midfielder Youri Djorkaeff. He has 28 goals for France, but spent much of this season on the bench at Kaiserslautern before moving to English club Bolton.

"Most of the players who are in their 30s are still competitive in their clubs," Vierne said. "They're not better than they were in 1998, but there's nothing to make us think that these players are in decline."

And there's no reason the lack of qualifying games should hurt France any more than in 1998, when it qualified automatically as host nation. For Vierne, a bigger worry is the gradual shift in focus from defense to attack since the last World Cup.

"It's a team that sometimes has difficulty realizing that its game is more offensive than four years ago," Vierne said. "Before, it was a team where there was only one priority, defense.

"Will it be able to stay in control against Argentina?"

France's defenders are still world class, but a lapse in concentration nearly saw the team concede a tie in an exhibition against Romania in February, before the French won 2-1.

That kind of error would cost dearly against a battle-hardened English team, which France could face as early as the second round of the World Cup. Argentina, which many consider the tournament favorite, is a possible semifinals opponent.

France is expected to advance easily through the first round. It opens against Senegal, a World Cup newcomer, then plays Denmark and Uruguay.

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