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The fall of France

By Brian Glanville

I saw three of the French games in Portugal and watched the one against England on the television. Though before the tournament I was never convinced about France's run of invincibility, the fact that they had gone so long without conceding a goal, told the whole truth, I was still astonished at the way they slunk out of the competition, against the hardly irresistible Greeks.

What went wrong on that remarkable evening in the Stadium of Light? Why, from start to finish, did the French look so weary, sluggish and inept? All very well for their departing manager, soon due at Spurs, Jacques Santini, to complain that too much was expected from them, the implication being that they had folded under pressure. The fact is that they never played like potential champions in any of their matches, but the Greek game saw them as a ghost team.

The absence of Patrick Viera with his midfield dynamism undoubtedly played a crucial part. The tall, powerful Arsenal midfielder gives any team in which he figures tremendous drive through the middle. Roma's Olivier Dacourt is no kind of substitute because he isn't remotely that kind of player. He is essentially a holding, containing central midfielder, with no change of pace such as Viera deploys, and no great imagination in his passing. Beside him against Greece there figures Claude Makelele, classically a defensive central midfielder whose speciality is to protect his defence.

Thus the whole burden of construction and invention fell on Zinedine Zidane, beyond doubt a footballer of tremendous talent, wonderful technique, a flair for the incisive pass and a superb right foot, which gets goals from any reasonable position and is lethally effective from free kicks.

Nor should one forget how good he can be with his head. He showed that when he scored in the match against the Swiss and of course he headed those two memorable goals, one at either post, from corners, in the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil.

In the Greek game, though one saw touches of his class, he was rendered largely ineffective by opponents who defended in depth and numbers but not to excess, since the Greeks were always ready and eager to counter attack; as they did so devastatingly for their winning goal.

My doubts about France as favourites in Portugal went back to the 2002 World Cup. They were among the favourites then but I was in Seoul to see them shocked, even humiliated, by Senegal in the opening game.

Just as in the second Portuguese game, against Croatia, a hostage was given to fortune by playing big, slow Frank Leboeuf at centre-back. This gave the quick Senegalese attack a huge advantage, which eventually brought about a decisive goal. Leboeuf was simply too heavy and slow to cope with Diof.

But by the same token, what possessed Jacques Santini to cling on to Marcel Desailly, so plainly a spent force, and put him into the squad at all, let alone into the team which faced Croatia?

There had been more than sufficient evidence that Desailly was struggling for form and it was embarrassingly shown in the Monaco-Chelsea European Cup semifinal when he was lucky not to be sent off. He's slow and vulnerable now and it amazed me that Santini didn't even call the adroit young Auberry as centre-back into his squad, alongside his club partner, Boumsong.

In the event, Desailly admitted culpability in the scoring of Croatia's second goal, when the powerful Prso got the better of him and pivoted to beat Fabien Barthez. But the French journalists who later assailed the hapless Desailly would have done better to deplore Santini, the man who never should have picked him.

Thierry Henry, who had such a devastatingly poor World Cup after such an excellent Euro 2000, disappointed again even if he did come to effective life in the last stages against the Swiss, who for so much of the game coolly matched France with their shrewd passing and scored a fine goal through young Johan Vonlanthen.

Henry complained that he didn't get the ball fast enough, and perhaps had a point, but he was hardly the force he's been with Arsenal, which makes you think not for the first time that the Premiership is a mediocre league full of moderate teams.

Even without Desailly, the French defence was porous. How lucky France were to defeat England, who wasted a penalty through overrated David Beckham and conceded one, thanks to that insane back pass by Stephen Gerrard.

And how embarrassing was the Greek winning goal, with 32-year-old Theodoros Zagorakis going down the right wing and passing Bixente Lizarasu with humiliating ease to put the ball on the head of Angeles Charisteas for the dramatic winning goal.

You might have expected some sort of animated reaction from the French, but no. This was a tank without petrol.

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