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Scolari's fortunes take a dive

On a slightly anti-climactic night in Munich, at least we found out where diving comes from. Apparently, it's as Portuguese as Men O' War, Nelly Furtado and Nando's chicken.

In fact, the great explorer Ferdinand Magellan discovered it in the early 16th century as he circumnavigated the globe on a route that passed suspiciously close to the port of Buenos Aires. Tragedy prevented Magellan from bringing it back to Portugal in person when he went down under minimal contact from a Filipino spear during the battle of Mactan in 1521.

As the world's football folk berated Big Phil Scolari's men for their outrageous gamesmanship, they conveniently forgot generations of World Cup theatrics.

Jürgen Klinsmann has been one of this tournament's heroic figures but had a reputation so bad that the only way he could win over English fans after signing for Tottenham was to lampoon himself with a diving goal celebration.

To use a couple of more recent examples, what about Fabio Grosso infuriating the Aussies by legging himself up on a prostrate Lucas Neill, or Thierry Henry clutching his face after a shoulder in the chest from Carles Puyol? Both men will play in Sunday's final, yet somehow they escaped the universal condemnation heaped on the Portuguese.

The problem is not that Portugal are so good at diving, it is that they are so bad at it. We are swift to praise 'clever' forwards provoking and then going down under an innocuous challenge, but Scolari's players have been so brazen they merely look ridiculous.

Several thousand England fans who had bought their semi-final tickets before Saturday's defeat to Portugal turned up anyway, and took great delight in booing Cristiano Ronaldo's every touch following his altercation with Wayne Rooney.

The soon-to-be-ex-Manchester United winger responded with a superb performance as he tormented the increasingly nervy full-backs with unusually direct and incisive runs.

However, the English boos were soon accompanied by French whistles and jeers as Ronaldo flung himself to the deck at every opportunity. On one occasion he launched himself, Superman-style, past two defenders who looked on, bemused, as the Portuguese players screamed for a penalty.

The blue-clad hordes responded with derision and disgust. Cross-channel relations may be at a low ebb, with Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair rarely seeing eye to eye, but on the subject of Ronaldo's theatrics there is genuine entente cordiale.

He was not alone in the diving stakes, as Pauleta produced a couple of pearlers while Hélder Postiga chipped in with a scarcely-believable effort of his own. It was unedifying stuff that could be snuffed out if FIFA reviewed game tapes and dished out an automatic one-match ban to anyone found guilty of a clear dive.

It all ended in tears for Ronaldo, who since 2004 has produced more televised crying than the entire cast of EastEnders. It might sound like heresy but the result was tough on him. He was the game's outstanding player and just about Portugal's only attacking threat.

Pauleta is past his best and patently not up to the job, particularly playing up front on his own, while Hélder Postiga showed exactly why Pauleta still gets in the team. Cross after cross was aimed towards the danger area, where a couple of men in dark red ambled around while an unruffled Lilian Thuram headed the ball clear. It said it all when Scolari resorted to deploying centre-back Fernando Meira as a makeshift striker in a tactic Chelsea fans would have recognised as 'Operation Huth'.

For the first time since they laboured past Togo, France went into the game as favourites and it is no coincidence that they produced their worst performance since the group stage. On 37 minutes Henry made the most of a clumsy Ricardo Carvalho challenge and Zinedine Zidane walloped home the penalty.

The Arsenal skipper's plummet to the turf enraged Scolari. Given his own players' tendency to invent rather than exaggerate fouls, Long John Silver had more of a leg to stand on than the Brazilian.

Five days earlier England's players were intimidated by the occasion when they faced Ricardo from 12 yards. The steely-eyed Zidane had no such problem. For the fifth time out of five at this World Cup Ricardo got his hand on a penalty but Zidane struck it with sufficient conviction and direction for the ball to nestle in the corner.

Game over, it seemed. Portugal were bereft of ideas when forced to make the running against ten-man England and proved even more hopeless against a full complement of Frenchmen.

But France sat back, as they had done against Korea in the group. On that occasion Park Ji-Sung smuggled in an equaliser with the Asians' only meaningful attempt on goal, but les Bleus refused to learn, retreating further and further into their own half.

Fabien Barthez had faced only ten shots in five games before the semi-final, but it was only a matter of time until he produced a blunder of epic proportions. It came 13 minutes from time when Ronaldo spanked a long-range free-kick at his chest.

Barthez scooped the ball in the air like a beach volleyball player setting the ball for his (or her) team-mate to smash. But instead of a lithe young thing in a bikini, the ball was met by the creaking, ancient head of Luis Figo who, rather than propelling the ball downwards into the empty net, sent it looping over the bar.

It was some let-off, followed by the most concrete example yet of improved team spirit in the French camp. Grégory Coupet briefly walked out of the squad when he discovered he would be back-up to Barthez, but now he was defending his calamitous compadre from the bench, motioning with his hands to suggest Ronaldo's arrow-straight free-kick had swerved wickedly in the air.

Against Italy there will be no such reprieves. The bookies rate France as marginal underdogs, a status they will enjoy following their brilliant displays against Spain and Brazil.

But while the pressure was off in those two games, the team now shoulders the huge expectations of a belatedly but now unshakeably confident French nation. 'The goal of their lives' screamed the front page of L'Equipe, which elsewhere talked about 'the force of destiny'.

It will be farewell to Zidane, the pre-eminent footballer of his generation. Farewell to the international stage for Thuram, who has also defied age to reproduce the best form of his life. Farewell to Barthez, as erratic and charismatic as he has ever been. Farewell to Makelele, whose medal will make him the envy of his show-pony Chelsea team-mates.

Above all, it will be a chance for a generation of players to sign off in the most spectacular manner possible, with a World Cup victory nobody thought they could achieve.

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