'We're not stopping now,' say France
HAMELIN, Germany, July 7 (Reuters) - Resurgent France have the feeling nothing can stop them from celebrating a second World Cup triumph on Sunday.
"We can't stop now," defender Lilian Thuram said after the 1998 winners overcame Portugal 1-0 on Wednesday to secure a Berlin final against Italy.
It was all very different a few weeks ago, an ageing France team fearing they might make yet another early exit after a sluggish start to the tournament.
Somehow, France managed to survive the group stage and then everything clicked, Spain and champions Brazil falling to a resurgent side before Portugal became the latest victim of an unexpected revival.
"Of course we're satisfied and even a little bit proud but we have not reached our objective yet," warned coach Raymond Domenech.
"We must not become the spectators of our own run. There's still one match we have to win."
That game between two teams who share a taste for defensive tactics and have fought many close contests over the years promises to be a tight, tactical affair.
"You need luck in that kind of game but luck always smiles on the team who's better prepared and better organised," said Domenech. "I hope it will be us."
Like in 1998, the backbone of French strength comes from a watertight back four and two superb holding midfielders in Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira.
A revitalised Zinedine Zidane is their inspiration in midfield, reading the game and creating space as smartly as in his prime, with Thierry Henry, their lone striker, not quite the player he is for Arsenal but still a lurking danger.
In 1998, France picked "I Will Survive", Gloria Gaynor's disco classic, as their anthem on their way to a 3-0 final win over Brazil in the Stade de France.
Eight years on, the French players have a motto, "On vit ensemble, on meurt ensemble" (we live together, we die together), which they keep repeating.
"It comes from long-forgotten ages," Domenech explained.
"It was something you said before doing battle.
"The message was in English last time. It's in French now but the meaning is the same. It's all about surviving."
That new phrase sums up the spirit of a team desperate to make up for embarrassing eliminations from the 2002 World Cup and 2004 European championship, where internal squabbling and oversized egos marred their campaigns.
"We wanted to prove we were not rubbish," Henry said earlier in the tournament.
That much has been done. Now the stage is set for a triumphant farewell for the great Zidane, who will retire after the finals, and several other 30-somethings nearing the end of their prolific careers.
Like Zidane, Thuram and Makelele announced their international retirements after Euro 2004 before deciding last year to return for a final encore.
"This is a symbol," said Domenech. "Those are the players who gave France a winning mentality. It would have been sad if they had left on a failure.
"They deserve this final and they can help us win it."