MUNICH, July 4, 2006 (AFP) – Zinedine Zidane will be walking a disciplinary tight-rope as he attempts to inspire France to victory in their World Cup semi-final against Portugal here Wednesday.
Zidane is one of six Frenchmen on a yellow card going into the game, so the veteran must keep his volatile temper in check to avoid becoming the latest in a long line of stars to miss out on a World Cup final through suspension.
The 34-year-old midfield maestro has already been booked three times during this World Cup. One more yellow and, should France win, he will join compatriot Laurent Blanc (1998) and Germany’s Michael Ballack (2002) as players who have been forced to watch the final from the sidelines.
Having so many players under threat of suspension — Willy Sagnol, Louis Saha, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Franck Ribery are the others — must be a source of concern to French coach Raymond Domenech.
Portugal have shown throughout the tournament that they are adept at bringing the worst out in their opponents, with Holland and England both having players sent off against them in the knockout rounds.
The two teams also have a history, most notably the Euro 2000 semi-final, when Zidane’s golden-goal penalty saw France win a stormy encounter 2-1, sparking a mass melee at the final whistle.
More recently, several members of Portugal’s World Cup squad, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Hugo Viana, Helder Postiga and Tiago, played in a brutal European Under-21 championship qualifier against France in 2003.
The Portuguese qualified for the finals after a penalty shoot-out in a match notable for the sending off of France striker Djibril Cisse for punching an opponent.
Cisse was given a lengthy suspension and missed Euro 2004; Portugal’s players celebrated the victory by smashing up their dressing room.
Domenech, who was the coach of the French Under-21s at the time, later accused the Portuguese players of acting like "savages". However he has been keen to play down the relevance of the 2003 contest to Wednesday’s semi-final.
"Don’t call this Portugal team cheats," Domenech said. "This Wednesday is all about another match, another team, another context."
Portugal’s Postiga, meanwhile, acknowledged the bad blood between the two countries, who also met in the 1984 European Championship semi-final, another match won by the French.
"The rivalry between Portugal and France is enormous," Postiga said, refusing to comment on the stormy Under-21s battle. "We deserved to win that night but I’m not going to talk about what happened afterwards."
Domenech, whose side stunned holders Brazil 1-0 with a masterful quarter-final display on Saturday, has been impressed by what he has seen so far of Portugal.
"They have players of talent, who are organised well, who can defend and cause you problems," he said.
Domenech is also wary of his opposite number, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title and is chasing a record 13th consecutive victory in the tournament.
"Portugal are a quality side who have proved capable of imposing their style of play on their rivals," said Domenech. "I don’t know Scolari but I think he’s world champion isn’t he?"
Scolari, who will be buoyed by the return from suspension of midfield playmaker Deco and his minder Costinha, is certain to have taken note of the fact that so many of France’s players are on a knife-edge.
And Wednesday’s referee, Uruguayan Jorge Larrionda, has already shown a propensity to dole out cards at this World Cup, having sent three players off during the Group E match between Italy and the United States.
Meanwhile, the master motivator Scolari has urged his team to create history by becoming the first Portuguese side to reach the World Cup final in only their fourth tournament.
"We had the chance to create a piece of history at the 2004 European Championship and we didn’t take it," said Scolari, referring to Portugal’s failure to win their first major tournament on home soil two years ago.
"Now we have got another chance to make history at the World Cup."
Scolari has put his team’s progression through the tournament down to a new-found ‘warrior spirit’ that has been grafted on to Portugal’s long tradition of technical excellence.
"The spirit of this team is remarkable," Scolari said. "This is a new Portugal team and it’s a new spirit. It’s a warrior spirit. This is what we were missing in the past.
"We had great technical players but now we have added a warrior spirit."