Italy Vs. France For The World Cup

French fans celebrate as they head to the World Cup finals against Italy.
French fans celebrate as they head to the World Cup finals against Italy.

Few teams faced more questions heading into the World Cup than Italy and France. The French were over the hill - they couldn't even score. The Italians were consumed by the biggest soccer scandal in the nation's history. No teams have answered their doubters more emphatically.

"We were not listening to it when they were giving us a lot of stick," French forward Thierry Henry said, "and we're not listening to it now."

On Sunday in Berlin, the Italians play for their fourth world soccer championship and the French go for their second.

Both teams have rich traditions, but neither entered the monthlong tournament a favorite.

The Italians came to Germany as a match-fixing scandal built at home. Day after day, allegations of bribes and favoritism piled up against four topflight clubs for which 13 of the 23 Italy team members play.

The players were silent about the probe, but their performances were boisterous.

"Yes, the confusion of the past two months has given us all the desire to respond in an appropriate way," coach Marcello Lippi said. "It's brought this group of guys together. We wanted to show what Italian soccer really means."

Italy won the World Cup in 1934, 1938 and 1982. This time it has allowed only an own-goal in six games, and now its offense is rising to the same level. After beating Germany with two goals in the final minutes of extra

That run has required a determination no team has matched in this event.

Except, perhaps, for France.

Four years ago, the French became the first defending champion to exit in the opening round of the next World Cup. They didn't even score a goal in 2002.

In the buildup to Germany 2006, they rarely impressed, barely escaping from their qualifying group. Veteran players such as Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Fabien Barthez hinted at dissension toward coach Raymond Domenech.

Through two first-round games, France was on the verge of early elimination again, and Zidane was suspended for the match with Togo after getting two yellow cards. He even threw his captain's armband in the coach's direction when substituted in the dying moments from a 1-1 tie with South Korea. It looked like it might be the last game for Zidane, who retires after this tournament.

But the French beat Togo - and were revitalized.

They beat Spain 3-1 with a dominant second half, then toyed with pretournament favorite Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Their 1-0 semifinal win over Portugal came with a bit of good fortune - a suspect rewarding of a penalty kick that Zidane converted. No matter: France will be in Berlin for its fifth World Cup meeting with Italy.

Italy won the first two World Cup matches with France, 3-1 in 1938 and 2-1 in 1978. France won 2-0 in 1986, then took a penalty-kick shootout 4-3 after a 0-0 tie in '98.

Who has the edge this time?

"It is an advantage having this experience, having players who know what it takes to go to the end," Domenech said.

"I think we enter in good form, just the right mix physically and psychologically," Lippi said.

Although France has yielded just two goals, Italy has the superior defense, led by Fabio Cannavaro, perhaps this World Cup's best player. But Zidane, a three-time world player of the year, has been masterful the last three games. If anyone can create space in the penalty area for his teammates, it's Zizou.

Barthez has made some outstanding saves, but he also has a penchant for bobbling the ball. Italy's Gianluigi Buffon, who has been questioned back home about illegal sports betting, has been impregnable.

While Henry has three goals, he's also had plenty of chances as France's lone forward. Italy's scoring has been more balanced, and the bench is deeper up front.

If the stars decide the title, France has the edge. If it becomes an 11-man game, Italy is in better shape.

"Now," Lippi said, "we've got to complete the opera."

© 2006 The Associated Press.