France 98's Final Four All Have Their Story




PARIS -- The host against the long shot. The defending champions against the most balanced team. Sounds like a final four worthy of any World Cup.


Not that these are the greatest teams soccer has produced. Brazil's 1970 team certainly was superior to its current squad. The 1974 and 1978 Dutch, featuring the revolutionary "Clockwork Orange'' attack, probably would blow away the 1998 Netherlands team.


Still, that's nitpicking. The story lines are superb for these semifinals, with Brazil meeting the Netherlands Tuesday and the French playing the Croats one day later.


The last home team to win the Cup came in 1978, when Argentina defeated the last of those great Dutch sides at Buenos Aires. In fact, no host has made the final since.


France has reached the final four despite an inability to find the net. It beat one-dimensional Paraguay 1-0 on a sudden-death overtime goal by Laurent Blanc in the second round. Blanc had the deciding shot in a penalty shootout against Italy in the quarterfinals.


"I know the problem, and there is no explanation,'' said captain Didier Deschamps of his team's poor marksmanship, despite dozens of chances to score.


Another close game might not benefit France, which hasn't faced as rugged an opponent as Croatia. Then again, if the French find the range early, they have a superior attack.


Croatia can withstand physical play, as it did against Germany. It also has impressive counterattacking skills, and its defense has been among the staunchest in the cup.


As World Cup first-timers, the Croatians should be somewhat overwhelmed by the occasion. Don't count on it: Many of them have solid international backgrounds. Croatia made the European Championship field two years ago, so its achievement as the first newcomer to make the semis is somewhat misleading.


"For 45 years in Yugoslavia, we never played with the same fire as we are for Croatia,'' defender Igor Stimac said.


Unlike in 1994, when Brazil outclassed the field, it has been inconsistent this year. The Brazilians have been brilliant at times, ordinary at others. Their 3-2 victory over Denmark in the quarterfinals demonstrated their sensational scoring power, but also displayed once more the problems they've had on defense.


Coach Mario Zagallo believes the Dutch are the toughest team Brazil has faced thus far. He's correct.


"They have a refined ball touch and great individual talent,'' he said. "It's impressive that they can lose a player like [Marc] Overmars and not feel the difference.''


Overmars played less than a half against Argentina in the quarterfinals, slowed by a hamstring injury. He's expected to start against Brazil.


Unlike Winston Bogarde. The Dutch defender broke his right leg in a heavy fall during training Sunday.


"It is a terrible disappointment for him personally and for the team after the euphoria of yesterday,'' said Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.


"We have to see if he will be operated on in Amsterdam or if a surgeon will be flown here.''


Another Dutch defender, Arthur Numan, is suspended because a second yellow card against Argentina meant expulsion. But that is evened out by a one-game ban on Brazil's attack-minded defender Cafu for two yellows spread over two games.


At times, the Dutch defense has looked a step slow. If any team can capitalize on that, it is one led by the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Bebeto and Cesar Sampaio.


"Brazil will be more difficult than Argentina,'' said Dutch star striker Dennis Bergkamp, whose last-minute goal lifted the Netherlands into the semis. "They will always attack and test your defense.''


The Dutch have also had their moments, good and bad. They had a shaky first round marred by Patrick Kluivert's two-game suspension after elbowing a Belgian opponent in a lackluster 0-0 opener. They routed South Korea, but then blew a 2-0 lead in the second half against Mexico. The 2-2 tie allowed them to win the group, but not in the manner they preferred.


But the Netherlands has opened things up since.


"If we play the same way, not as individuals, I think we will do well against Brazil,'' coach Guus Hiddink said. "But they are a totally different opponent.''