Vive la France: Les Bleus advance to World Cup final
By STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — France is back in the World Cup final for the first time since Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006.
Twelve years after one of soccer’s most infamous moments, Samuel Umtiti used his head to score from a corner kick in the 51st minute and earn France a 1-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday in the first of the all-European semifinals.
The French danced on the field after the final whistle and shook the hand of Thierry Henry, who helped Les Bleus win the World Cup in 1998 but had been hoping to eliminate his native country as Belgium’s assistant coach.
France’s fans sang in the stands long past the end of the match, surrounded by yellow-clad security.
They certainly hope to keep the party going on Sunday in the final in Moscow. France will face either Croatia or England, who play Wednesday at the Luzhniki Stadium in the Russian capital.
“Vive la France! Vive la Republique!” France forward Antoine Griezmann shouted during the post-match celebrations.
France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made a great save in each half, denying the potent Belgian attack of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku the chance to advance the country to its first major final. Belgium reached the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup and the European Championship in 2016 but has yet to fulfil its lofty expectations.
The world now gets to see France’s luxury squad, collectively valued in excess of $1 billion and headlined by teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, in another major final.
Two years ago at home, the French surprisingly lost to Portugal 1-0 in the Euro 2016 title match. In 2006, they were beaten in a penalty shootout by Italy in a World Cup final that was overshadowed by Zidane headbutting opposing player Marco Materazzi in the chest in extra time. Zidane was sent off in what was his final match.
In a tournament dominated by goals from set pieces, France took the lead from a corner. Griezmann curled in the ball from the right and Umtiti got in front of tall Belgium midfielder Marouane Fellaini to knock in his header at the near post.
“It’s me that scored,” Umtiti said, “but we all delivered a big game.”
Up in the corporate seats, French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to the goal by shaking the hand of King Philippe of Belgium as FIFA president Gianni Infantino watched on between them.
The goal capped an impressive display by Umtiti, who helped to shut out the most productive attack in the World Cup with 14 goals, and meant three defenders have now scored on France’s route to the final. Benjamin Pavard and Raphael Varane scored in previous matches.
In search of the equalizer, Belgium repeatedly sent over crosses from both wings but Umtiti and Varane, both center backs, used their bodies cleverly to hold off Fellaini and Lukaku. Varane, in particular, was outstanding.
France coach Didier Deschamps has faced some criticism for being too pragmatic and functional despite having so many stars in his squad, but the organization of the team was superb and Belgium was largely restricted to only minor chances that were kept out by the flying Lloris.
Deschamps now has the chance to become the third person to win the World Cup as a player and a coach, after Germany great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo. As France captain, Deschamps won soccer’s most prized trophy in 1998.
With Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar no longer in Russia, Eden Hazard and Mbappe have taken over as the stars of the World Cup and there was a buzz every time either got the ball.
Yet while Hazard — Belgium’s captain — faded after a strong opening 30 minutes, Mbappe was a constant threat. His first touch was after 10 seconds and, after receiving the ball on the right wing, he sped past Jan Vertonghen and then Mousa Dembele in a thrilling run.
At 19, Mbappe wasn’t even born when France won the World Cup for the first and only time with a squad that is just as diverse as the one Deschamps is leading 20 years later.
Lloris is the captain and he played a key role against Belgium, diving to his right midway through the first half to claw away Toby Alderweireld’s shot and then getting in front of Lukaku to punch away one of substitute Dries Mertens’ many crosses.
“Unfortunately for us, the difference is just a dead-ball situation, a set play,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. “The game was, as you can imagine, very close, very tight, and it was going to be decided (on) maybe the one that it could find that final touch in the box.”
Instead of a trip to Moscow, Belgium will return to St. Petersburg for the third-place match.
IN THE STANDS
Along with the French and Gabonese presidents and the king and queen of Belgium, there was rock ‘n’ roll royalty watching the game.
Mick Jagger was one of the many famous faces in the stands at St. Petersburg Stadium. The Rolling Stones frontman is a big soccer fan, having attended the World Cup final in Brazil in 2014 as well as many England games.
Former Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson, who is the partner of France defender Adil Rami, also was present.
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80