SAINT-DENIS, France -- Luigi Di Biagio's penalty kick ricocheted off the crossbar, and as the Italian midfielder tumbled backward with an anguished expression on his face, the French players rushed forward to share their relief with goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
After 120 minutes of scoreless soccer, this fratricidal World Cup quarterfinal between the host nation and the nation where many French stars earn fine livings in lira had come down to this.
"I'm exhausted," said French coach Aime Jacquet yesterday, moments after his team had beaten Italy, 4-3, on penalty kicks to earn a semifinal berth Wednesday against the winner of today's quarterfinal between Germany and Croatia.
Meanwhile, the Italians must face the fact that for the third consecutive World Cup they were eliminated after faltering in the nerve-jangling, oft-unsatisfying exercise -- the shootout.
In 1990, Argentina defeated them in the semifinals after penalty kicks. In the 1994 final against Brazil, Roberto Baggio was the last Italian to shoot and sent the ball flying over the crossbar. Di Biagio, who has been one of the Azzurri's finest performers in France, came closer, but the result was the same.
"To lose three times on penalty kicks is a travesty," said Baggio, who made his penalty yesterday.
Di Biagio was not the only player to miss. Defender Bixente Lizarazu, the second French player to shoot, had his tentative shot stopped by Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca. But Italy's advantage would prove very brief, because on its next attempt, Barthez smothered a shot by Demetrio Albertini.
"That put the counter back at zero," said Barthez, a relaxed sort who was laughing with a French assistant coach before the first penalty kicks were taken. "I just knew we were going to win."
After French defender Laurent Blanc beat Pagliuca to give France a 4-3 advantage, Di Biagio, the last of Italy's five designated penalty shooters, walked forward. The 27-year-old late bloomer who stars for AS Roma, struck the ball with his right foot toward the center of the goal. Barthez had guessed wrong and dived to his left.
The crowd of 80,000 was screaming too loudly for anyone but Barthez and Di Biagio to hear the ball strike the crossbar, but a groan was surely heard throughout Italy and a roar in France.
"I'm sorry," Di Biagio said. "It doesn't make me feel any better to know that other great players have done the same thing."
Brazil 3, Denmark 2: They were sloppy, trailed early and didn't look like world champions. But in the end, Brazil was too good for Denmark's giant-killers.
With a pair of goals from Rivaldo and Ronaldo in a new role as playmaker, the Brazilians moved into the semifinals.
The Brazilian defense fell apart at times against a plucky, carefree Danish team happy just to reach the quarterfinals for the first time, having upset Olympic champion Nigeria, 4-1, in the previous round.
Just two minutes into the game, Dane Martin Jorgensen stunned the four-time World Cup champs with a goal off a free kick.
With goals from Bebeto and Rivaldo, Brazil had a 2-1 lead at the half. A blunder by defender Roberto Carlos led to Brian Laudrup's tying goal early in the second half, but Rivaldo scored his second goal to clinch the victory.
"This was a victory of courage," Brazilian coach Mario Zagallohe said. "This was a true World Cup game: beautiful, frank and open."
! France 0, Italy 0
(France won on penalty kicks, 4-3)
Italy 0 0 -- 0
France 0 0 -- 0
Pub Date: 7/04/98