France advances to World Cup final, beats Belgium 1-0

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — France is back in the World Cup final for the first time since Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006.

Twelve years after one of soccer’s most infamous moments, Samuel Umtiti used his head to score from a corner kick in the 51st minute and earn France a 1-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday in the first of the all-European semifinals.

The French players danced on the field after the final whistle and shook the hand of Thierry Henry, who helped Les Bleus win the World Cup in 1998 and is now Belgium’s assistant coach.

France will face either Croatia or England in the final on Sunday in Moscow. Those two teams play in the other semifinal match on Wednesday, also in Moscow.

France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris produced a great save in each half, denying the potent Belgian attack of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku the chance to advance the country to its first major final. Belgium reached the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup and the European Championship in 2016 but has yet to fulfil its lofty expectations.

The world now gets to see France’s luxury squad, collectively valued in excess of $1 billion and headlined by teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, in another major final.

Two years ago at home, the French surprisingly lost to Portugal 1-0 in the Euro 2016 title match. In 2006, they were beaten in a penalty shootout by Italy in a World Cup final that was overshadowed by Zidane headbutting opposing player Marco Materazzi in the chest in extra time. Zidane was sent off in what was his final match.

In a tournament dominated by goals from set pieces, France’s took the lead from a corner. Antoine Griezmann curled in the ball from the right and Umtiti got in front of tall Belgium midfielder Marouane Fellaini to knock in his header at the near post.

Up in the corporate seats, French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to the goal by shaking the hand of King Philippe of Belgium as FIFA president Gianni Infantino watched on between them.

The goal capped an impressive display by Umtiti, who helped to shut out the most productive attack in the World Cup with 14 goals, and meant three defenders have now scored on France’s route to the final. Benjamin Pavard and Raphael Varane scored in previous matches.

In search of the equalizer, Belgium repeatedly sent over crosses from both wings but Umtiti and Varane, both centre backs, used their bodies cleverly to hold off Fellaini and Lukaku.

France coach Didier Deschamps has faced some criticism for being too pragmatic and functional despite having so many stars in his squad, but the organization of the team was superb and Belgium was largely restricted to only minor chances that were kept out by the flying Lloris.

Deschamps now has the chance to become the third person to win the World Cup as a player and a coach, after Germany great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo. As France captain, Deschamps won soccer’s most prized trophy in 1998.

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