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Jul 2, 2006

The sword is mightier than Le Pen

Need a great French performance? Call Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1998, the odious National Front leader's criticism of the team's ethnic mix proved an unlikely source of inspiration when they won the tournament.

He was at it again before Saturday's quarter-final, claiming that French society 'cannot recognise itself' in the national team. Les Bleus responded by battering Brazil with the best and most unexpected display of the World Cup.

Sadly, Le Pen is not a man who can be easily ignored, as the head of a party that regularly polls 15% of the public vote, and who himself reached the final round of the presidential election in 2002. Lilian Thuram calmly but forcefully dismissed the claims before the match, but the real proof of Le Pen's absurdity came on the pitch.

The team are not here to reflect the exact ethnic breakdown of French society, they are here to win the tournament. And if they do, it will be for the whole country and not just the people who look like them.

One doubts whether Le Pen bothered to ask the millions of delirious revellers that poured onto the nation's streets whether they cared that seven black players started the game. The pride and passion with which they wore the shirt was an inspiration to all but the most one-eyed of Frenchmen.

Zinedine Zidane, himself of Algerian descent, produced perhaps the greatest performance of his career at a time when nobody thought he could do it.

The 34-year-old put Brazil to the sword with a sensational, swashbuckling display. He has been a fading force for several years, but it was the 'old' Zizou that held off the challenges of Zé Roberto and Juninho, the burst past Gilberto in the very first minute.

The strength, the acceleration, the balance and the imagination were all back. He shifted the ball from right to left foot and flicked it down the line for Franck Ribéry, leaving Cafu dazed. He darted past two players and played in Patrick Vieira with a perfect through ball a minute before half-time.

He provided his first assist for Thierry Henry with the match-winning free-kick. He even produced one of his trademark 'roulette' spin moves to leave poor Zé Roberto tackling thin air.

This was the performance of a man who knew it could be his last. He has now earned another two matches, barring injury or suspension. Can he sustain such mesmeric form? It seems unlikely, but if he can do it then France will surely be crowned world champions again.

I have still got two more matches in me and then it will be perfect
Zinedine Zidane

The 1998 final is seen as the pinnacle of his career for the two headed goals he scored, although he hit even more rarefied form at Euro 2000. Oh, and that long-range volley he scored in the 2002 Champions League wasn't bad, either. Another World Cup followed by instant retirement would trump all of these.

'We needed to produce a massive performance and we did that. We were physically strong and well organised. Now we have to try and earn a place in the final,' he said after the game. 'As far as I am concerned, I have still got two more matches in me and then it will be perfect.'

But while a lifetime of relaxation and free drinks throughout the French-speaking world awaits, he must now focus on the challenge of Portugal in the last four. Zidane played the second half with his right thigh bandaged. Although it did not seem to restrict his movement, the French medical team will work feverishly to ensure he is ready for Wednesday.

France should be heavy favourites. Portugal again lacked attacking invention as they toiled to break down ten-man England, and at no point did they look like possible World Cup-winners. However, they have already sent home two major nations and will believe they can make it a hat-trick.

Every nation seems to have a history of aggro with Portugal and France are no exception. They beat them in the semi-final of Euro 2000 courtesy of a Zidane penalty in extra-time, but the match was made (in)famous by the excessive Portuguese protests that saw Abel Xavier, Nuno Gomes and Paulo Bento banned for nearly two years between them.

Brazil were absolutely gutless in Frankfurt. They had strolled through the opening rounds without ever bothering to hit their stride, as though they refused to dignify their inferior opponents with a decent performance. When the time came to step it up and respond to the French challenge, they were found desperately wanting.

Ronaldinho came out sporting a headband with a giant 'R' on the front, but ditched the superhero schtick at half-time when he realised Brazil were involved in a real game. The Barcelona man is still the best footballer in the world, but too often in this tournament his natural brilliance has been stifled.

He is not a player who can force the game, it has to flow through him. The walking-pace posturing of the Seleçao did not allow their finest player to hit the heights. Big Phil Scolari would not have tolerated it, but Carlos Alberto Parreira owes his longevity to the fact that he doesn't ruffle feathers, and he was powerless to act as the tournament favourites were torn apart.

The goal was typical of Brazil's slipshod approach. Roberto Carlos appeared to be marking Henry as Zidane whipped in the free-kick but then stopped and put his hands on his knees as the Frenchman raced in and volleyed past Dida. It was shockingly poor defending from a player whose arguments with Ronaldinho and Juninho at set-pieces provided more unedifying evidence of the team's disunity.

The result was greeted with predictable joy in France, with L'Equipe describing it as 'like a dream'. After the misery of the group stage in which they drew with Switzerland and Korea and risked an embarrassingly early exit, the victories against Spain and Brazil have been greeted with pure and unexpected delight.

The team has clicked and Raymond Domenech has stumbled across his best lineup - yesterday was the first time in 26 matches that the French coach has fielded the same starting eleven twice in a row.

This turnaround in fortunes seems miraculous, but such things happen when a team hits form and discovers its self-belief. France have always had some great individuals; against Brazil they had a great team.

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