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Zidane puts jubilant French in the final

Written by: Staff

MUNICH, July 6 (Reuters) A Zinedine Zidane penalty gave France victory in their World Cup showdown with Portugal yesterday and set up a final with Italy which will be the gifted playmaker's last game before retirement.

The 34-year-old took just two steps, then coolly fired his penalty into the bottom left-hand corner to score the winner in the 33rd minute and ensure he goes out right at the top.

The 1-0 semi-final victory prompted jubilation among the blue-clad French fans in Munich's futuristic Allianz Arena and across France, where fans have come to believe in a second World Cup triumph to go with their first in Paris eight years ago.

The streets of the French capital were filled with the sound of blaring horns, whistles and cheering as people streamed out of bars cheering, ''We're in the final!''.

''What matters now is to go all the way. We can't be content with this,'' France coach Raymond Domenech said.

''We have to recuperate and start focusing. We must give all we have in that final to make sure we have no regrets.'' Zidane's penalty came after Portugal's Ricardo Carvalho caught France striker Thierry Henry's ankle inside the box.

Italy had claimed their place in the final with two goals late in extra time on Tuesday against hosts Germany, whose attacking football and unexpected run to the last four prompted an outpouring of German patriotism unknown in the post-war era.

The hosts were still digesting their exit from the tournament as France and Portugal met yesterday -- with one group of fans in the crowd holding up home-made letters thanking the Germany team for their efforts.

BRIGHT START Portugal started brightly, with Maniche and Cristiano Ronaldo firing in strong early shots. But France often appeared to have just a touch more class, typified by the skills of Zidane who also inspired them to their 1998 triumph.

The midfielder, three times World Footballer of the Year, was at the heart of almost every French move, spending time on the wings and in the centre of the field, peppering his game with short and long passes and running at the Portuguese.

France also relied on a formidable defence, which has conceded only two goals in six games at this World Cup.

Domenech's side held firm under an intense bout of Portuguese pressure in stoppage time helped by their superb central defender Lilian Thuram, who was named man of the match.

''I'm 34 and I feel like the 10-year-old boy who watched the World Cup and found it beautiful,'' said Thuram, one of four members of the French team who also played in the 1998 final.

''The final has been our objective from the start. Being there is a dream. Missing it would have been a nightmare.'' Portugal coach Luiz Filipe Scolari, who had hoped to win a second World Cup four years after he achieved the feat with his native Brazil, remonstrated with the officials at the end.

But in his post-match comments he was gracious towards the French, telling reporters: ''We did everything we could, we did our best. Congratulations to France.'' The French had made a sluggish start to the month-long tournament, prompting criticism they relied too much on ageing players past their best and reviving memories of the last World Cup when as holders they went out in the group stage.

But their form improved dramatically in the knockout stage, transforming the mood among fans from gloom to exuberance.

''We are going to win this World Cup, that's for sure,'' said Yohan Haouzi, a 22-year-old Parisian brandishing the national flag of red, white and blue in the French capital.

Reuters DH VP0436

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