CLAIREFONTAINE, France -- In a secluded training site 40 miles southwest of Paris, hidden among woods that were once the royal hunting grounds, the pride of France prepared this week to bag the biggest soccer trophy of all.
The French team has never won the World Cup, but the current edition, playing at home with style and grit, is one of just eight teams remaining as the quarterfinal round begins.
No easy games remain. The toughest of all may be today, however, when France plays Italy, a friendly neighbor against whom the French always have measured their soccer.
"It's 20 years we have been watching Italy, watching how they do things there," said Youri Djorkaeff, one of seven on the French team who play in Italy's top league, Serie A. "They're the first to have won these big championships and Cups. They're very strong at moments like this."
Both Italy and France were strong in winning their first-round groups. Both advanced to the quarterfinals with difficult 1-0 wins in the round of 16 -- Italy over Norway, and France in overtime with Paraguay.
The French get back one key player today, play-making midfielder Zinedane Zidane, who was given a red card during the opening round. He plays with Italian league champion Juventus.
There will be few surprises. Italy will play its structured, patient game, looking to counterattack but never leaving its defense exposed. France will build quickly and hope for spectacular plays near the goal.
"I like playing football, not chess," said defender Franck Leboeuf, who plays in the English Premier League for Chelsea. "When I watch Italian football, I am bored. It's pretty, but there is no joy in the football there."
France will be hard-pressed to score today, particularly with striker Thierry Henry, who has three goals in the Cup, doubtful because of an ankle injury.
The French will rely on Zidane to bring the ball forward, creating chances for David Trezeguet or Djorkaeff.
The Italians boast talented forwards, led by Christian Vieri, who has five tournament goals, and Alessandro Del Piero, with Roberto Baggio ready to substitute.
"Logically, the favorite is Italy," said Djorkaeff. "It's not a team you can face calmly."
And it will be difficult to remain calm when the largely partisan crowd rocks the 80,000-seat Stade de France in Saint-Denis.
Other quarterfinal rivalries might not be as historic, but the tension will be the same.
Brazil plays Denmark in Nantes tonight. The winner advances to the semifinals against the winner of Argentina-Netherlands, to be played tomorrow afternoon in Marseille. The France-Italy winner advances against the winner of tomorrow's Germany-Croatia match in Lyon.
France and Italy will be friendly neighbors again tomorrow. But today, both countries' fans know about the 1986 World Cup, when France eliminated Italy, 2-0, in the round of 16 and finished third.
"It's like the Americans playing Canada in hockey," Leboeuf said. "We are neighbors, but we want to show we are superior. Every time is a tough game."
Pub Date: 7/03/98