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   June 11, 2002 | 1430 IST


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France's fall swift and unexpected

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Robert Woodward

France's fall from soccer's highest pedestal has been sudden, totally unexpected and almost embarrassing to watch.

The epitome of casual yet confident class, the world champions had been the unrivalled masters of the beautiful game since 1998 when they won the World Cup on home soil. On Tuesday, they became the first title-holders to lose in the first round since Brazil in 1966 and only the third since the World Cup started in 1930. They lost two of their three games and failed to score a single goal.

The image that captured Brazil's disastrous campaign in 1966 was a black and white photograph of Pele being helped off the field after being brutally fouled by Portugal in a 3-1 defeat.

For Pele, read Zinedine Zidane, whose furrowed brow as he tried in vain to get fit, summed up France's unhappy campaign.

Like Pele, Zidane is considered the world's finest player --- he is also the world's most expensive. But a thigh injury in a pre-tournament friendly put him out of contention for the first two games of the month-long tournament.


Fabien Barhez consoles Zinedine Zidane Zidane's absence upset the team's shape but when they walked out for the opening match against debutants Senegal on May 31, they looked a side without any obvious weakness.

European champions in 2000, France had profited fully from a golden generation of players, many from their former colonies.

The defence had maybe the finest fullbacks ever to play in the same national team, Bixente Lizarazu and Lillian Thuram, the midfield had class in every position while the attack was led by two of the hottest strikers in Europe, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry.

But Senegal, a former colony and the birthplace of France midfielder Patrick Vieira, were not overawed and hustled the French out of their stride to seal a shock 1-0 win.

French morale was shot through by the defeat and suddenly several players looked their age -- the defence against Senegal had an average age of more than 32 -- and off the pace.

Luck had smiled on France during the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 but it deserted them in South Korea where the ball kept hitting the woodwork and not the back of the net.

In the 0-0 draw with Uruguay, Henry was sent off in the first half for a foul which merited only a yellow card but the French already looked a busted flush.

Zidane returned for the final match against Denmark but it was too little, too late, even for the man who scored twice in France's 3-0 defeat of Brazil in the 1998 final.

France lost 2-0 and their four years of dominance were over. In 1998 they scored 15 goals -- in 2002 they were impotent. At least Brazil won their first match in 1966 and scored in every game.

On July 12, 1998, hundreds of thousands of French fans crammed the Champs Elysees to celebrate a magical triumph as Zidane's nickname "Zizou" was shone on to the Eiffel Tour and fireworks lit up the night sky.

On Tuesday the lights went out.

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