France ensures European domination

Frankfurt – The city of Frankfurt, nestled on the River Main in central Germany, staged the election of 36 kings and 10 German emperors between 855 and 1792. On Saturday night it adopted the practice again and hailed a new emperor, but this time he was French. Zinedine Zidane, the captain of the French national soccer team, will lead his side out tomorrow against Portugal in the semifinals of the World Cup after defying the odds at the end of his remarkable career to lead his side to victory against Brazil. This means that for the first time since 1986, there will be no team from South America in the World Cup final. Argentina, the other pre-tournament favorites, lost to hosts Germany. The French victory confirmed European domination. France had been dismissed by experts as a team that was too old and too divided thanks to the tactics of their aloof coach Raymond Domenech to achieve anything at this tournament. On Saturday they faced the favorites for the trophy, Brazil, who seemed to be gathering pace in their quest to lift their first World Cup on European soil since 1958. Yet, walking to the flying saucer-like Waldstadion in Frankfurt on a muggy July evening, there seemed to be a feeling in the air among the 48,000 fans that they were about to witness something out of this world. It was noticeable that despite the friendly atmosphere outside the arena, there was more rivalry between opposing fans at this game than there had been in the previous rounds of the World Cup. This was the quarterfinals and things were getting serious for supporters and players. Another yardstick of the importance of this game was the number of people outside the stadium trying to get a ticket. Holding up handwritten signs simply reading «I need a ticket,» hundreds of people wandered around the outer security perimeter hoping fortune might shine upon them. While it was clear that some were desperate fans, it was also obvious that many were touts looking to profit from this desperation. The organization and thought that has been put into this World Cup has been impeccable. For example, to minimize the impact of the tournament on the environment, organizers have chosen not to use disposable paper plates and cups for food and soft drinks at any official snack stands. Drinks are served in hard plastic cups which can be kept as souvenirs or returned so they can be reused. As part of this Green Goal initiative, the stadium in Frankfurt features a futuristic roof with a vast rainwater collection facility. The problem of ticket touting, however, has not been effectively tackled by organizers. Every game has been sold out and the scalpers have been in evidence at all the venues. Before the game on Saturday, they were demanding close to 1,000 euros for a ticket which cost less than a tenth of that, putting even the most faithful fan under severe emotional and financial strain. World soccer’s governing body FIFA has recognized the problem and said on Sunday that it would control ticketing at the next tournament in South Africa in 2010. The number of tickets allocated by local organizers to sponsors at this World Cup has been cited as a key problem. Magical display Those able to take a seat at the oval-shaped concrete and steel arena on Saturday witnessed one of the most sublime performances by a player at any World Cup. Zinedine Zidane has been the hero of French soccer for some 10 years and confirmed his status by leading the side to victory at the 1998 World Cup in France, where Les Bleus beat Brazil 3-0 in the final. He is also the world’s most expensive soccer player, transferring to Spain’s Real Madrid from Juventus for almost 70 million euros in 2001 – the type of deal that prompted awe, even in a financial hub like Frankfurt, which has been home to the European Central Bank since 1998. But the 34-year-old has said that he will retire from the sport at the end of this tournament. He went into Saturday’s game knowing it could be his last and played with the abandon of a teenager making his debut. Straight from the kickoff, Zidane displayed the artistry of an impressionist painter but combined it with the brute strength of a French legionnaire. His performance set the tone for the rest of the team and it gradually became evident that the French wanted to win this game more than the Brazilians. At some point during the last month in Germany, Domenech’s side had discovered team spirit. The Brazilians, in comparison, hoped that individual skill would win the game for them. The determination of France, however, meant that none of the Brazilian stars were able to shine and the skill was oozing from Zidane instead. Frankfurt’s most celebrated citizen, novelist and playwright Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, was born in the city in 1749. «Boldness has genius, power and magic in it,» he wrote.The French side was by far the bolder. It was fitting that the French captain should set up the only goal of the game for striker Thierry Henry in the 59th minute. The two had played 54 times together yet Henry had never before scored from a Zidane assist. Even at the end of his career, Zidane was looking to set new records. The goal sent some 10,000 French fans in the stadium into ecstasy. There was also a seismic shift on the pitch as Brazil could find no answer to Zidane’s genius. But this was a night to admire the resolve of the French and of one man in particular. After the game, Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said Zidane had made even more of a difference in this game than in the 1998 final, when he scored twice. «Zidane is the master,» said Brazilian soccer great Pele. No more plaudits were needed.