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Zidane hopes for yet another World Cup

india Updated: Jul 08, 2006 12:48 IST
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Zinedine Zidane is preparing for the last, and perhaps biggest, game of his life.

And just like the World Cup final eight years ago, the rest of the French team is thinking defence first and foremost to give the soon-to-retire midfielder space to weave his magic against Italy.

France expects Sunday's final to be a closed, defensive fight, where one single action might well decide the World Cup. That's where Zidane comes in. He has rarely disappointed Les Bleus. Yet even with such pressure on his shoulders in the final game before retirement, there is nothing that can change Zidane during the daily workouts.

"He is simple, ready to listen. He talks," forward Sidney Govou said.

For much of his career, few players have exuded more inner calm than Zidane. When he stepped up to take the decisive penalty against Portugal on Wednesday, the only thing he could not control was the sweat dripping down his face.

For the rest he was focused, concentrated and clinched victory with a penalty as perfect as his three last games. "He is still incredible," right back Willy Sagnol said. "He has the qualities of a natural leader."

Instead of two goals to bury Brazil 3-0 in 1998, Les Bleus will be happy with one on Sunday, since they will be counting on the defence to keep a clean sheet for the third time in a row.

It is that defensive effort which has come to mark France's 2006 vintage. Lilian Thuram, who will also retire from the national team Sunday, has been the standout defender, but Sagnol stresses that defending is an effort which reaches as far as striker Thierry Henry and even Zidane.

"It is not an iron defence. It is a high performing defence," he said. "Everybody contributes. And if I sometimes look at the defensive efforts of Zizou and Henry at the cost sometimes of individual actions, it is something we have to underline." Unfortunately, it comes at a cost to the fan.

French play has not been as spectacular as the lineup could imagine and Henry has been less than sparkling, despite scoring the winner against Brazil in the quarterfinals and earning the penalty in the semifinals against Portugal.

But the overall team performance of Italy and France are outstanding anyway, Sagnol said. "The true cognoscenti will say that this is soccer," he said. "A solid defence is the key to success. We knew this from the start."

With two days to go, France has not fully turned its attention to Italy yet. It first wants to recover from Wednesday's draining 1-0 semifinal win against Portugal, knowing the tension for such a game will come soon enough.

In that sense, France might well be lucky to have four veterans of the 1998 World Cup final at the starting whistle _ goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, defender Thuram, midfielder Patrick Vieira and Zidane.

"It is better to have people with experience at this level," Sagnol said. "Everybody remains serene and calm." Zidane has already retired from Real Madrid and it is still unclear what the plans of Juventus defender Thuram will be next season. Under any circumstance, it will add a special note to the final.

"If we can help three, four veterans to finish on the highest note, so much the better," Sagnol said.

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