No World Cup champion has owed more to its back line than France. These four Musketeers-Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram—allowed only one goal (by Croatia) in the run of play for the tournament, even though two of the defenders were playing out of position. The graceful central defender Desailly, a native of Ghana, usually plays defensive midfield for his club, AC Milan. Thuram, a native of Guadeloupe and Les Bleus' unparalleled right back, normally roams the middle of the defense for his Italian club, Parma. "If you approach the game with the right attitude," said Thuram, "you can play any position."
Or, like Thuram, seemingly every position. In the win over Croatia, Thuram became a national hero by scoring both of his team's goals. His skill as a defender had never been questioned—Thuram was named foreign player of the year in Serie A last season—but he had not scored in 36 previous games for the national team. After his second goal Thuram fell to the Stade de France turf and struck the pose of Rodin's The Thinker, which made sense, for he is an avid reader of philosophy whose favorite book is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. Thuram's two-way play was so breathtaking that it made one wonder: Could the best player in the world be a defender? "You write and write about me and Ronaldo," Zidane said last week, "but you don't even see that the greatest footballer of all is right in front of you: Lilian Thuram."
One sequence that involved Thuram midway through the first half on Sunday neatly summed up the contrasts of the game. With the final scoreless, Thuram lunged to steal a pass on the right sideline, then kept die ball alive by lifting it over two onrushing Brazilian defenders as though he were flipping a pancake. The ball traced the sideline chalk until it came to French midfielder Christian Karembeu, a New Caledonian, who hustled down the right side into Brazil's defensive third. Just when it appeared Karembeu had lost the ball, Roberto Carlos muffed die easy clearance, and suddenly France had a corner kick.
Zidane outleaped Brazilian midfielder Leonardo to the ball and drilled in his first goal. Just before intermission, Zizou worked the same magic on another corner, this one from the left side. Then midway through the second half, after Desailly was ejected for his second yellow card, France braced for Brazil's final assault. None came. Midfielder Emmanuel Petit insulted Brazil with a shorthanded goal in injury time. Had its bumbling forwards, Stéphane Guivarc'h and Christophe Dugarry, not botched wide-open shots, France might have won 6-0.
Afterward, Chirac and other pols scurried to attach themselves to die new champions of le foot, a sport that had been viewed with typical French disdain before the tournament. It was as if Thuram had opened The Little Prince and read a passage to the nation: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." How else could one explain the public outpouring that took place on the day of the final, when thousands of French citizens lined the streets of Paris to cheer the team bus? "It was like after the war in 1945," said Leboeuf.
After the game on Sunday, a million revelers flocked to the Arc de Triomphe, waving what seemed to be a million tricolors. Elderly women with wide smiles chanted, "On est le champion!" (We are the champion!) Teenagers with ZIZOU painted on their chests kicked crushed Coke cans and screamed as if they had just scored in the Cup final. Firecrackers popped. Whistles blew. Klaxons blared. It was 3 a.m. on the Champs-Elysées, and the celebration had only just begun.