Croatia defender Domagoj Vida (21) midfielder Ivan Rakitic (7) and forward Mario Mandzukic (17) celebrate the 2-1 victory against England in the semifinals. They will try to defeat France Sunday. (Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports)

France defeated Croatia, 2-1, in the semifinals at the 1998 World Cup. This is a reprint of the story from an eye witness account of the match.

By Michael Lewis

St. DENIS, France — Three times France had been to the World Cup semifinals and three times had walked away frustrated and disappointed and sometimes even feeling cheated.

On July 9, the French exorcised their own personal demons of semifinals past by recording a 2-1 triumph over upstart Croatia to reach the final for the first time.

“It is truly the most beautiful day in the history of French sport,” French president Jacques Chirac said

The win, however, was far from easy as the French were forced to overcome a one-goal deficit and withstood a late comeback attempt by the Croatians despite playing the last 16 minutes of regulation and five minutes of stoppage time with only 10 men.

“I don’t think we had a wonderful game tonight, but we played our hearts out and that made a difference,” French coach Aime Jacquet said.

It took a defender who had never scored an international goal to lift the goal-starved French squad to victory. Lilian Thuram scored not once, but twice within a span of 22 minutes in the second half, the last in the 69th minute to secure the historic victory before a partisan crowd at Le Stade de France.

That set up an intriguing final on Sunday between four-time and defending champion Brazil and France. This is the seven time in 16 World Cups that the host team has reached the final and the first time since Argentina accomplished the feat in 1978.

The victory, however, came at great cost as defender Laurent Blanc, whose extra-time goal lifted France to a second-round win over Paraguay, was awarded a rather dubious red card by referee Jose Garcia-Aranda of Spain in the 74th minute. Blanc, who is suspended from the final, pulled the jersey of Slaven Bilic in the penalty area and slapped him in the face, definitely a yellow card, but arguably not a red one.

“It’s like when you have a birthday and a big cake and someone takes it away from you,” Blanc said.

“I’m rather surprised at this red card,” Jacquet said. “I’m a bit surprised he could do anything reprehensible to do anything to be sent off.

“It made the end of the game extra difficult for us.”

The French withstood the Croatians’ last stand, which included a 16-yard blast by Goran Vlaovic that was slapped over the bar by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez five minutes into stoppage.

For a good portion of the first half, the French were doing the same exact thing as they took many ill-advised long-range shots.

Ironically, itwas the Croatian goal — scored by Davor Suker off an Aljosa Asanovic feed only 25 seconds into the second half — that woke up the sleepy French attack.

Sixty-six seconds later, the French equalized as Thuram stripped Croatian defender Roberto Jarni of the ball and slipped a pass to Youri Djorkaeff at the top of the box. Djorkaeff then found Thuram, who beat goalkeeper Drazen Ladic from 22 yards.

“That gave them a big boost and gave them strength to come back and to do better,” Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic said.

About 22 minutes later, the French did as Thuram played a five-and-go with Emmanuel Petit 30 yards out. He then took two steps and fired a curling, left-footed shot into the right corner that sent France into the final.

The French reached the semis in 1958, losing to Brazil. They also suffered in ’82 and ’86, dropping heart-breaking losses to West Germany.

“Brazil is the greatest team in this World Cup,” Jacquet said. “It’s going to be a festival of football.”