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France thrills its fans with victory over Italy

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Third time, and the shootout curse continues for Italy. For France, a fantastic World Cup adventure moves within one step of the championship game.

After being eliminated in a shootout in the semifinals in 1990 and losing the championship to Brazil in 1994 when the last penalty kick sailed over the crossbar, Italy suffered again Friday, losing 4-3 in the shootout after 120 scoreless minutes of play."It's a curse," Italian coach Cesare Maldini said.

France, which has allowed just one goal in four of five games, reached its first World Cup final four in 12 years before a home crowd of almost 80,000 including Jacques Chirac, the fans cheering throughout and singing "La Marsaillaise."

"It takes the coolest heads to win," said French coach Aime Jacquet.

None are cooler than defender Laurent Blanc, who scored the decider in the shootout after pushing France into the quarterfinals with the first sudden-death overtime goal in World Cup history.

After a 120-minute thriller in which returning playmaker Zinedine Zidane did everything for France but score, it came down to a single shot to separate the two neighboring soccer giants.

Luigi Di Biagio had the fifth and final shot for Italy, down a goal. His shot crashed into the crossbar, sparking wild celebrations at the Stade de France.

"I'm really sorry, so sorry," Di Biagio said.

Di Biagio joined Roberto Baggio as shootout goats. Baggio, who made his penalty kick against France, sent that final shot high above the crossbar in Pasadena, Calif., four years ago to hand Brazil the victory.

"It's hard to go out of the World Cup this way," said Demetrio Albertini, who missed early in the shootout series.

Bixente Lizarazu of France missed his shot on the same round and the teams stayed even until the very end.

"We didn't lose our nerves" Jacquet said. "In the end, the best team won."

France will come back to the national stadium on Wednesday to play the winner of Saturday's Germany-Croatia match.

The shootout, the second of France 98, came after two hours of physical play and refined tactics could not separate the two. France dominated, outshooting the Italians by 31-10. Italy didn't get its first corner kick until the third minute of the second-half injury time.

"We just wanted this victory more than the Italians did," French captain Didier Deschamps said.

Yet Italy almost won the game in overtime. Twelve minutes into sudden death, Baggio took a long pass from Angelo Di Livio and volleyed the ball without controlling it. It swerved just past the far post.

So it came down to penalties and the heartstopping moments.

Even Chirac was spellbound.

"This is true happiness after total stress," said France's first fan.

Although players on both sides were friends, the game was rough, with 50 fouls called and five yellow cards issued.