People looked at me funny when I predicted Portugal to win the Cup this year. Nobody else expected them to make it this far. But I saw something others didn't see. I saw a team that came in second in the last European Championships. I saw a core of players that has been together for a the better part of a decade making their last realistic run at a title. I saw a team coached by Scolari, who had never previously lost a match in World Cup finals.
Portugal's run came to an end today. The game was decided by a penalty kick in the first half. It was the right call. The Portuguese defender, Carvalho, swept for the ball, missed, and stuck out his leg to trip Thierry Henry, who had made a nimble move to keep possession of the ball. I hated to see the penalty, but it was the right call.
—Ohmygosh, who is that cutie waving the Panamanian flag that the camera just zoomed in on greeting one of the players???—
Zinedine Zidane was chosen to take the kick. The best player in the world versus the best goalie in the world. "Super Man" Ricardo admitted after the England match that he could see in the players' eyes what they were thinking of doing with the ball, and truly he never guessed wrong in that shoot-out. Ricardo and Zidane stood meters apart, staring each other down, the air ripe with tension. Who would win this showdown, one wondered as a tumbleweed blew across the dusty pitch under the unforgiving sun of high noon. The soccer mystic, or Super Man?
Zidane kicked. Ricardo guessed right again. I think he got a finger on the ball, but Zidane's kick was perfect. France led 1-0. Zidane did not play the same mind-boggling game he played against Brazil, but he was once again the difference in the game, as France advances to face—and hopefully beat the snot out of—Italy.
The end of the game could not have been more exciting, though. With about 3-4 minutes left in regulation, the French goalkeeper, Barthez, faced a shot from Portugal. Inexplicably, he scooped the ball up into the air, where two Portuguese players awaited the chance to equalize. Figo took the header and almost deposited it into the back of the empty net. Then in the final minute, "Super Man" Ricardo was pulled from the goal on a corner kick. Portugal had all 12 men up front for a last-ditch effort to stay alive. They came perilously close to scoring, but France knocked the ball away. "Super Man" ran after it and executed a bicycle kick to get the ball back into the box and force another corner kick. Again, Portugal almost scored, but a fantastic defensive effort from France ended the threat and the game.
I'm disappointed that my Portugal pick proved incorrect. But I am excited for France. They have gotten no respect since their early exit from World Cup 2002, despite the fact that they field basically the same team that won it all in 1998. They are fun to watch. Zinedine Zidane is the best player of his generation and a joy to watch every time. Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira are amongst the best in the sport in their own right. And it is so much fun to watch Franck Ribery push the ball upfield with such bursts of energy and exuberance. I've decided I also very much like France's coach, Raymond Domenech, not only because he is a Sam Waterston look-alike but also because he seems to have a good sense of humor, as evidenced by certain amusing gestures and mannerisms from the sideline.
It goes without saying that I'm very much looking forward to Sunday's Championship. If Italy plays like it did in its last match against Germany and France plays as it did in its last two matches against Brazil and Portugal, it will be a Championship match for the ages! Viva la France!