Saint Petersburg (AFP) – France reached their third World Cup final after overcoming Belgium on Tuesday, sparking scenes of unconfined joy in Paris as tens of thousands of people poured into the streets.
In scenes reminiscent of France’s 1998 World Cup win, delirious crowds surged up the Champs-Elysees avenue and surrounded the Arc de Triomphe, waving flags and letting off flares.
A header from Samuel Umtiti in Saint Petersburg was enough to give Didier Deschamps’ team a 1-0 win against Belgium.
The 49-year-old coach is now just one win away from winning the World Cup — 20 years after he captained the team to victory on home soil.
The tournament favourites must wait 24 hours to discover whether they will play England or Croatia in Sunday’s final in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium but they will approach the game brim full of confidence.
Belgium started the stronger of the two teams but Umtiti’s header from a corner in the 51st minute was the pivotal moment as the defender stole the limelight from jet-heeled Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
France’s other hero was goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who made a spectacular fingertip save in the first half to deny Toby Alderweireld and then kept out Alex Witsel’s drive as Belgium cranked up the pressure towards the end of the match.
Deschamps said he was delighted to have the chance to bury the pain of the Euro 2016 final, which Portugal won in Paris.
“I am very happy for my players,” he said. “It was hard against a very good Belgium team. I take my hat off to my players and my staff.”
“Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” he added.
France started the tournament in Russia slowly, struggling for goals in the group stages but hit their stride in an impressive 4-3 victory against Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the first knockout round.
Boasting an impressive combination of experience and youthful zest, they controlled their quarter-final against Uruguay, running out comfortable 2-0 winners.
The defeat is painful for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called “golden generation”.
Captain Eden Hazard dazzled in patches but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet and Romelu Lukaku was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the tournament, even though Belgium enjoyed most of the possession.