What Italy Has in Resume, France Has in Recent Success

Italy brings a formidable pedigree of three titles to Sunday's World Cup final. France is a more recent champion and boasts a stronger resume at this tournament.

France's victims include pretournament favorite Brazil, as well as Spain and Portugal — two teams with long unbeaten runs before they faced Les Bleus. Italy did beat Germany, but before that had an easier road with Australia and Ukraine.

Not that the 1998 champions are favorites; Italy is the choice on most betting lines. It's a familiar place for the French, who were underdogs against the Spaniards and Brazilians, but played vastly better than both.

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"We came to this World Cup and didn't know what would happen," defensive leader Lilian Thuram said. "Sometimes you leave and say, 'It will be the semifinal or the final.' Not us, we had to take it step by step."

As have the Azzurri.

Italy, seeking its first championship since 1982, has been one of soccer's traditional powers since the World Cup began in 1930.

Still, the Azzurri were considered outsiders this time, in part because they are hounded by a scandal over alleged match fixing that is tearing apart the national sport back home.

Just like 24 years ago. As they did then, the Italians have rallied together in an impressive display of camaraderie, not to mention brilliant technical soccer. The result is their first final since 1994, when they lost to Brazil.

"They battle forever," France coach Raymond Domenech said of Sunday's opponents. "Italy remains an eternal benchmark."

In the opening round, Italy beat the Czech Republic and Ghana — the only African team to advance into the single-elimination rounds — and tied the United States. France was only able to tie Switzerland and South Korea, but a victory over Togo sent it into the second round.

Since then, France has handled stronger competition.

The French measured up spectacularly against Brazil, which brought the biggest array of talent to Germany. And nobody has lifted his team more than captain Zinedine Zidane, a three-time world player of the year who is headed into retirement after Sunday's match.

Zidane set up one goal and scored another in France's 3-1 comeback win over Spain. His magnetic ball possession and masterful distribution keyed the 1-0 victory over Brazil. And his penalty kick beat Portugal 1-0.

"He is still incredible," right back Willy Sagnol said. "He has the qualities of a natural leader."

And he is the man Italy must disrupt, a challenge shared by midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who has played against Zidane several times in European club competition.

"You don't stop Zidane. Maybe he stops himself if he's not in form," Gattuso said. "You have to try and control him. To stop him, you need to make the sign of the cross."

The Italians not only must shut down Zidane by pressuring him in the midfield, they also want to control possession. Italy has done that in most of its matches, and flustered opponents with a defense that closes space in the penalty area — defenders seem to materialize from nowhere to block shots before they reach standout goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy also has an arsenal of finishers, with 10 players having scored in the tournament.

Coach Marcello Lippi was livid at the suggestion that some consider making the final a triumph for his team.

"When I hear people talking about celebrating no matter how things turn out, it bothers me," he said Saturday. "Having gotten this far and then not winning would make me really (angry) tomorrow. ... When in your life are you going to get a chance like this again?"

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