SAINT-DENIS, France -- The Arc de Triomphe stood stately on the horizon.
And the French national soccer team stood nearby, under the stars on a beautiful Paris night, looking like a team ready to march under the arc next month triumphantly holding the World Cup trophy.
"If not for a few little things, I'd say I was completely happy," French coach Aime Jacquet said after a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia yesterday that guaranteed the host nation a spot in the next round and eliminated the visitors.
Most of the "little things" to which Jacquet referred were, indeed, little.
On the way to the most one-sided victory of the tournament thus far, much to the delight of 80,000 adoring, flag-waving, anthem-singing fans who made for an unforgettable scene at Stade de France, the French were close to perfect.
The victory was surprisingly one-sided considering the expected strength of the Saudi team. There were spectacular plays that included long, perfectly placed passes, crisp midfield moves by superstar Zinedine Zidane and a beautiful back-heel pass from Youri Djorkaeff to Bixente Lizarazu for France's final goal.
The French took a whopping 16 shots in the game, seven of them on target and four hitting the net.
"We had the crowd behind us, and everybody played to the top of their form," Jacquet said. "It was emotional."
But, alas, Zidane was one who seemed to get too caught up in the emotion in the 70th minute. And Zidane's mistake might be the only reason France today cannot be talked about in the same breath as Brazil, Germany and Italy, who have had similarly overwhelming efforts in this tournament.
Zidane was red-carded by referee Arturo Brizio of Mexico after an obvious hard tackle from behind. Earlier in the day, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and France '98 president Michel Platini scolded referees for not sufficiently enforcing the tackle-from-behind rule.
Referees listened. In the South Africa-Denmark game earlier in the day, a nearly unheard-of three red cards were issued. And early in France's easy victory, Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Al-Khilaiwi was issued a red.
The severe foul caused France's best player to be ejected from the game, and by rule Zidane will be ineligible for the next two games -- the second of which will be a round-of-16 elimination game.
Still, France is guaranteed of advancing, and the offense and defense could not have looked better, after a 3-0 victory over South Africa in France's opener.
Thierry Henry scored France's first goal on a nice feed from Zidane in just the ninth minute, then David Trezeguet, 20, added a nice rip into the net in the 68th minute.
Henry added his third goal of the tournament in the 77th minute, and Lizarazu finished things off after the snazzy pass from Djorkaeff.
"We played well the whole way," Jacquet said. "We are becoming a formidable team. We're playing with conviction and ambition."
South Africa 1, Denmark 1: Denmark earned the inside track for one of two Group C spots in the second round in a match in Toulouse, France, which included three ejections, seven warnings, 19 players and two goals.
Denmark took a 1-0 lead on a first-half goal by Allan Nielsen, but South Africa tied it when Benni McCarthy scored the first World Cup goal in the nation's history in the second half.
Denmark ended the match playing 9-on-10 after Colombian referee John Jairo Toro ejected Danish substitutes Miklos Molnar in the 67th minute and Morten Wieghorst in the 85th. Wieghorst was in the game for just three minutes.
Alfred Phiri of South Africa was ejected two minutes after Molnar in a game that also had seven yellow cards issued.
There had been four red cards in the tournament's 20 previous games.
Tickets: An American tour company said 15,000 World Cup tickets were stolen from its Paris office yesterday morning.
Gillian Pattison, a spokeswoman for Prime Sports International, said burglars broke into the company's offices early yesterday, smashed a safe, grabbed cash worth over $560,000 and made off with tickets for most of the remaining matches, including the final in St.-Denis on July 12.
) South Africa 1, Denmark 1
Results: Denmark 1, S. Africa 1 France 4, Saudi Arabia 0
Yesterday's stars: Thierry Henry, the best player for France in its opener, scored two more goals against Saudi Arabia, tying him for the tournament lead with three. Benni McCarthy scored the first World Cup goal in South Africa history.
Injury update: French striker Christophe Dugarry tore his right hamstring vs. Saudi Arabia and will miss at least two weeks. Bulgarian defender Ivaylo Iordanov aggravated an abdominal muscle injury and will miss today's game with Nigeria. England central defender Gary Southgate has an ankle injury that required treatment yesterday, even though it was a day off for the team.
Look ahead: Spain, the favorite in Group D heading into the tournament, faces a dangerous situation against Paraguay in Saint-Etienne. After losing to Nigeria, the Spanish probably need a win against the South Americans, who tied Bulgaria, 0-0.
The Nigerians won the Olympics with a wide-open attack, and they showed it once more against Spain in a comeback 3-2 victory. They say they won't lay back against the counterattacking Bulgarians, who use Hristo Stoichkov to set up the offense.
Quotable: "I think all of us understand the implications of the game and we're excited about it. It's an opportunity for the sport of soccer to bring two nations together. It's the beauty of the World Cup." -- Eric Wynalda of the U.S. team on the impending game with Iran.
Pub Date: 6/19/98