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French dismantling of Brazil was really no surprise.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, July 14, 1998) -- France defeating Brazil was not an upset.

The French probably would win a 10-match series 5-3-2. They have a decided edge at midfield and on defense. The only thing that stops France from being one of the great champions is lack of finishing power at striker. It didn't get a goal from a forward after the first round.

The three French goals in the second round through the semifinals came from defenders. The three in the title match came from midfielders.

Brazil did well to make the final. It had weaknesses in central defense, midfield, and forward. Furthermore, the brilliant left back, Roberto Carlos, had a bad tournament. He got voted to the all-tournament team by FIFA, but didn't deserve to be. Neither did defensive midfielder Dunga, frequently outpaced by rivals. Both got the honor due to reputation.

In fact a case can be made that Ronaldo didn't deserve all-tournament designation, either. Several strikers had better tournaments -- Dennis Bergkamp (Netherlands), Juergen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff (Germany), Davor Suker (Croatia).

Coach Mario Zagallo's decision not to start Denilson in six of the games was a mistake. Brazil needed all the energy and flair it could get -- from the start. It was out of the France game before he entered. Before the tournament, we picked Netherlands, but the Dutch bowed out in a penalty-kick shootout to Brazil in the semifinals.

Fans can talk about the injuries and illness that slowed Brazil superstar Ronaldo, but what about the Netherlands that game missing its explosive wing dynamo, Marc Overmars, due to a hamstring.

Who would be the favorites if the tournament was repeated next month? I'd still go with Netherlands, backed up by France and Argentina.

The French showed that teams can play tight defense, and still attack. In one way, and one way only, were they similar to last-place United States: they couldn't finish chances.

Admittedly the draw favored France, with an easy qualifying group that including disappointing South Africa and Saudi Arabia, a modest second-round foe in Paraguay, a modest quarterfinal opponent in dreary Italy and modest semifinal opposition in Croatia. No England. No Netherlands. No Germany. No Argentina.

But the French overcame the early two-game suspension to Zinedine Zidane, and gained confidence in their attack as the tournament progressed. They outplayed every team they met.

Brazil had too many holes and very little depth -- and thus its loss in the championship match was no upset, though a fit Ronaldo and the 90-minute presence of Denilson might have made it a more competitive game.

Nigeria beating Spain, that's an upset. Croatia beating Germany, that's an upset, but only a mild one when it's considered the Germans were a man down for more than a half. Mexico tying Netherlands, that's an upset. South Korea tying Belgium, that's an upset. Romania beating England, that's an upset.

Those were the five biggest upsets at France '98.

Talk continues about penalty-kick shootouts, abhorred by many in the sport.

Four of the 16 knockout games were tied after regulation. One was resolved in a sudden-death "golden goal," the other three by shootouts when 30 minutes of extra time didn't yield a score.

Here's what we recommend:

That four or five substitutes be allowed, in addition to the three in regulation time, at the start of extra time, and that 45 or 60 minutes be allotted for the golden goal, not 30 minutes.

Then if it's still a tie, let's do the shootout the Major League Soccer way, the ballhandler starting from 35 yards out, with five seconds to shoot against a charging goalkeeper. There's an element of skill involved here that is not present in the penalty-kick version -- and maybe England would have beaten Argentina, Italy downed France, and the Netherlands defeated Brazil with this method.

The added players would produce more punch in replacing tired regulars.

This would be for the second round, quarterfinals and semifinals. For the final, either do the same as above, or stop after 90 minutes of a tie game, and replay it the following Wednesday.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.