By Jay Mwamba
One of the most exciting World Cup championships in recent years comes to a gripping end on Sunday with the two survivors of the 32-nation, four-week drama contesting the final at the imposing 80,000 Stade de France north of Paris.
Hosts France, playing some delightful soccer despite their scoring woes, clash with the upstarts from Croatia at the Stade today to decide who squares off with the winners of last night’s Marseille showdown between Cup holders Brazil and Holland.
Croatia, once part of Yugoslavia, upset the form book last Saturday when they obliterated a 10-man German side, 3-0, in the quarterfinals in Lyon.
Robert Jarni (45th), Goran Vlaovic (80th), and Davor Suker (85th) turned on the heat for Croatia after the Germans had suffered a severe blow with the ejection of defender Christian Woerns (40th) for a reckless challenge on Sukor.
The defeat signaled the end of a generation for Germany, World Cup winners in 1958, 1974 and 1990, while Croatia became the first side to reach the semifinals on their first attempt since Portugal in 1966.
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In their quarterfinal encounter with Romania last week, Croatia triumphed 1-0 on Sukor’s penalty in Bordeaux .
Azzurri penalty jinx continues
France, getting better with time, like their national beverage, outshot Italy 4-3 on penalties at the Stade last Friday to reach the semifinals for the first time since their last appearance, in Mexico ’86. The quarterfinal ended goalless after extra time.
With midfield m’stro Zinedine Zidane orchestrating their attacks, France took the game to their defensive-minded rivals for most of the 120 minutes of play.
Italy’s fate was finally sealed when their own midfield revelation, Luigi di Biagio blasted his spot kick against the crossbar. It marked the third time in as many World Cups that the Azzurri had lost on penalties.
Dennis Bergkamp produced a gem of a goal in the last minute in Marseille last weekend to avenge Holland’s 1978 World Cup final defeat to Argentina. The South Americans, controversial 4-3 penalty winners over England in the second round, fell by 2-1 after nearly doing a number on the Dutch, in a match in which both sides finished with 10 men.
Patrick Kluivert (12th) gave Holland the lead, briefly, with a brilliantly schemed goal in a quarterfinal they largely dominated but were unable to put away after Claudio Lopez beat the offside trap to equalize (16th).
Bergkamp’s winner came after a dramatic 15-minute sequence at the end. First, the Dutch seemed on the ropes in the 75th minute when defender Arthur Numan was red-carded for fouling Argentine skipper Diego Simeone, the same player at the center of the David Beckham incident against England.
Then followed another dramatic twist in the plot as Holland went into a defensive shell. Argentina’s Ariel Ortega was sent off for butting Dutch goalie Edwin van der Sar (86th), and the Dutch pressed forward. A minute from regulation time, Bergkamp deftly plucked a 60-yard ball from Ronald de Boer out of ether with his right foot, beat a defender and volleyed into the net.
“We are not amused,” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is reported to have exclaimed at a private dinner, after watching an England goal against Argentina in St. Etienne disallowed.
The London Times reported that the monarch, watching the epic second-round defeat by the Argentines on television, had leaped to her feet when Alan Shearer was adjudged to have fouled the goalie before Sol Campbell headed the ball into the net from a corner.
England eventually lost, 4-3, on penalties after playing the last 75 minutes of regulation and extra time with 10 men following the Beckham dismissal (47th).
The two sides were tied 2-all at the end, with Shearer (10th pen) and 18-year-old Michael Owen, with one of the best individual goals of the tournament, connecting for the English. Gabriel Batistuta ( 6th pen) and Javier Zanetti (45th) tallied for the Argentines.
Denmark picked up early in their quarterfinal tussle with Brazil in Nantes last Friday where they’d left off in their 4-1 romp over Nigeria in the second round, but the Samba kings were up to the challenge, winning 3-2.
After Martin Jorgensen’s second-minute strike had given the former European champs a false start, the Brazilians shifted gears and took only 9 minutes to draw level through Bebeto. Rivaldo (26th) got the first of his brace midway through the half, and struck the winner on the hour, after Brian Laudrup (50th) had momentarily resuscitated Danish hopes.