France's golden oldies set for final party
HAMELIN, Germany, July 6 (Reuters) Zinedine Zidane and company, believed to be too old for anything other than retirement a few weeks ago, are a match away from World Cup glory.
''We're all ready to live and die together,'' France defender Eric Abidal said, explaining how a team which had become ordinary after ruling the world suddenly recaptured their winning ways.
France suffered before overcoming Portugal 1-0 courtesy of a Zidane penalty in Wednesday's semi-final in Munich and will have to produce another combative display against Italy in the Berlin final on Sunday.
''Italy will be tough but when you've just knocked out Spain, Brazil and Portugal, you can keep your head held high and believe in yourself,'' said midfielder Patrick Vieira, summing up the spirit of a team determined to go all the way.
France's first final, eight years ago, saw them stun Brazil 3-0 and crowned an exceptional generation of players who went on to claim the European Championship title two years later.
Internal squabbling and, in defender Lilian Thuram's own admission, oversized egos then gripped France's ultimate winning machine and they were eliminated in the first round of the 2002 World Cup without a victory or a goal from the group stage.
After a quarter-final exit from Euro 2004 confirmed their downfall, several of the side's stalwarts announced their retirement from international football.
''We weren't a team there, we didn't feel like a solid group and we had the impression we were wasting our time,'' Thuram said here to explain his decision then.
With the team they once graced struggling to qualify for the finals in Germany, playmaker Zidane, holding midfielder Claude Makelele and Thuram returned to the national fold last year.
AMAZING REVIVAL All those thirty-somethings looked their age at first and one of the most amazing revivals in the history of the game took time to shape up.
Looking sluggish and short of ideas, France needed a 2-0 win over Togo in their Group G decider to reach the knockout stage of this tournament and lay to rest the ghosts of 2002.
After that, they suddenly looked like a team again, fighting side by side convincingly to beat Spain 3-1 before a magnificent performance by a revitalised Zidane helped them tame champions Brazil 1-0 in the quarter-finals.
Flair was largely absent from their fiercely contested semi-final against Portugal and all had to grit their teeth to make sure their unbelievable journey would continue.
''There's a lot of solidarity between us,'' said Thuram, once again the jewel in a watertight back four on Wednesday.
''There were some ego problems earlier in that team but not any more.'' Several players, notably Thuram, will quit international football after Sunday's final, this time for good, and the curtain will fall on the best team ever to wear France colours.
All eyes, of course, will be on the classy Zidane, who will retire after the tournament and made sure the last match of his glittering career would be a World Cup final.
The 34-year-old with the magic touch is already among the all-time greats but if he were to leave by lifting the most coveted of all trophies for the second time, he would be lifted to a level just below Pele and Maradona in the list of the beautiful game's most illustrious players.
REUTERS PM VC1414