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Thuram finds perfect time to finally find net.

By Paul Oberjurge
Gannett News Service

PARIS (Thursday, July 9, 1998) -- In 37 appearances with the French national team, defender Lilian Thuram had done everything but score.

He made up for that, twice over, as France rallied defeat Croatia 2-1 yesterday and advanced to Sunday’s World Cup title match against defending champion Brazil.

Thuram's hustle and marksmanship accounted for both French goals, one in the 47th minute and the game-winner in the 69th before 80,000 spectators at the Stade de France. "That's an excellent reward for all the effort he's put in, particularly the mental discipline he's brought to the team," coach Aime Jacquet said. "He's having a great World Cup."

Thuram was carried around the field by teammates, and his name was chanted by the overwhelmingly French crowd. "Now we play Brazil to find out who is the best team in the world," Jacquet said. "I hope it will be a wonderful festival of soccer."

Brazil will be playing for its fifth World Cup championship. France will be making its first appearance in the final.

Thuram's first goal came one minute after Davor Suker gave upstart Croatia a seemingly significant 1-0 lead; France had not scored in the previous 260 minutes of regulation play. However, replays of Suker's goal were barely finished when France and Thuram struck back.

Croatia captain Zvonimir Boban won the ball at the top of the box at Croatia's defensive end. Thuram, a right back who had made a long run forward, didn't give up on the play, coming behind the dawdling Boban and knocking the ball loose.

It went to midfielder Youri Djorkaeff at the top of the circle, and he pushed it right back to Thuram as he angled toward the goal. The sliding shot from 15 yards went into the left side of the net as goalkeeper Drazen Ladic unsuccessfully charged off his line.

French fans, stunned moments before by Croatia's goal, erupted. Suker fell to his knees in disbelief that a hard-won advantage was gone so quickly.

In the 70th minute, Thuram again had gone forward when a ball ricocheted off a cluster of players and back to him near the corner of the box. He and defender Robert Jarni battled for possession, and the ball popped to the left, where Thuram ran it down just outside the box.

A player who makes his living keeping other players from scoring for Italian club Parma knew exactly what to do. Thuram struck the ball sharply with his left foot, past the diving Ladic and just inside the far post, and France was through to the World Cup finals for the first time.

"He saved us today," French captain Didier Deschamps said. "He was extraordinary as always.

"We thought France's strength was failing," Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "We got our goal, but as so often happens in soccer they got one right back and that seemed to give them the strength to go on. The turning point was when (Boban) lost concentration for two fatal seconds. We weren't attentive enough."

Thuram's mother is from the island of Guadeloupe, making him part of the immigrant wave that has transformed French football. In four previous matches, he distinguished himself as a tenacious defender and efficient ball-handler. He plays central defender for Parma, but Jacquet uses him on the outside.

France's victory was witnessed by president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Lionel Jospin, who were among the capacity crowd at the gleaming, $433 million Stade de France.

France had failed to score in regular time in consecutive matches before Thuram converted against Croatia. France's most recent goal had also been by a defender, Laurent Blanc, in the 1-0 overtime victory over Paraguay in the second round. France edged Italy 4-3 in penalties after a scoreless two hours in the quarterfinals.

France played the final 16 minutes without Blanc, sent off by referee Jose-Manuel Garcia Aranda (Spain) for elbowing/slapping Slaven Bilic. He will be suspended for the championship match.

"He didn't have the right to send someone off for such a pathetic foul," Deschamps said.

Croatia, playing in its first World Cup, was a surprise semifinalist. The nation did not exist until 1991, when it declared independence from Yugoslavia. About 5,000 Croats, wearing the red-and-white checked pattern seen on their team's uniforms, made the trip to the French capital for the match.

"The French victory was deserved, their qualification is deserved," Blazevic said. "But nonetheless I think we could have been there ourselves."

Paul Oberjuerge writes for the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sun.

Semifinal

France 2, Croatia 1
in St. Denis

France: Fabien Barthez, Bixente Lizarazu, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Youri Djorkaeff (Franck Leboeuf 76), Didier Deschamps, Zinedine Zidane, Emmanuel Petit, Christian Karembeu (Thierry Henry 31), Stephane Guivarc'h (David Trezeguet 69).
Croatia: Drazen Ladic, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Jarni, Dario Simic, Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban (Silvio Maric 65), Mario Stanic (Robert Prosinecki 90), Aljosa Asanovic, Goran Vlaovic, Davor Suker.
Goals: Croatia - Davor Suker 46. France - Lilian Thuram 47, 70.
Shots at goal: France 20, Croatia 9.
Shots on goal:France 10, Croatia 3.
Corner kicks: France 7, Croatia 6.
Fouls: France 18, Croatia 20.
Offsides: France 1, Croatia 3.
Yellow cautionary cards: Croatia - Aljosa Asanovic 45, Mario Stanic 73, Dario Simic 90.
Red ejection card: France - Laurent Blanc 74.
Referee: Jose-Manuel Garcia Aranda (Spain).
Attendance: 80,000 (estimated).