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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
A fond farewell to France
By Paul Fletcher
Our man in Portugal

Zinedine Zidane
It was a sad au revoir for a brilliant team.

France's tame surrender to Greece on Friday is likely to signal the break up of a side that swaggered its way to World Cup and European Championship triumphs.

It has been a golden era for French football, with a team playing not only with an irresistible style and elegance, but also a feisty determination to win that conjured more than one dramatic comeback.

Their last-minute equaliser in the final of Euro 2000 against Italy epitomised the spirit within the team and will live long in the memory.

But although there have been glimpses of these qualities at Euro 2004 - notably the remarkable comeback against England - the French have largely been a pale imitation of their former selves.

They needed generous assists from both England and Croatia and struggled for 76 minutes before finally overcoming a mediocre Switzerland side.

And the manner of their defeat to Greece - laboured, uninspired and desperate - demands a stark examination of the future direction.

Coming on the back of their disastrous, goalless failure at the 2002 World Cup it is time for a period of introspection within the French federation if their national team is to regain its midas touch.

Several players are likely to make the tough decisions easier for whoever succeeds Jacques Santini as coach - probably Jean Tigana or one of their former number, Laurent Blanc - by announcing their retirement.

Central defender Marcel Desailly has spent the last few months ignoring jeers from his own supporters - and this for a man who has won 116 caps.

A once commanding figure, his combative prose when facing the media at this tournament could not mask the effects of age on his performance, and retirement is inevitable for a once-great player.

It is unquestionably time for a new wave to make their mark for France

Blanc, Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu were the other pillars of a defensive unit that proved instrumental in France's 1998 triumph.

Blanc, who was suspended for the final in Paris, hung up his boots some time ago and is now possibly in the frame to take over as coach.

But before he can do so Thuram and Lizarazu are likely to bow out.

Fabien Barthez, Claude Makelele and Sylvain Wiltord are the wrong side of 30 and may also decide the time has come to concentrate solely on club football.

Barthez says he could follow the other out of international football but would speak to the new manager first before making his decision.

But the main question surrounds the future of Zinedine Zidane.

He was the fulcrum of a side that was without equal, but the 32-year-old has had a disappointing championship and his performances elicited ferocious criticism in the French media.

With a contract at Real Madrid until 2007, he too has hinted that his international career may be over.

But Patrick Vieira, William Gallas, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet remain.

It remains open to question whether Henry and Trezeguet are compatible but both are undoubtedly class performers, while Liverpool-bound Djibril Cisse will also come into the equation up front.

Ludovic Guily
Guily is a rising French star
Defensive trio Jean-Alain Boumsong, Willy Sagnol and Mikael Silvestre will all improve with international experience.

Crafty playmaker Ludovic Giuly, who has joined Real Madrid, has a bright future, as does his former Monaco team-mate, defender Sebastian Squillaci.

And then there is the generation who will soon be pressing their claims.

Liverpool's young French duo Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle are both 20, while the France Under-17 team recently won the Uefa European Championship for their age group.

Several players from that team are held in extremely high regard.

Defender Jeremy Menez was tracked by Manchester United before signing a professional contract with Sochaux, Lyon's Hatem Ben Arfa has been dubbed the new Zidane and Samir Nasri is extremely talented.

Of course, there are no guarantees that France will recapture the success they experienced at the end of the last decade.

It took a long time to rebuild after the retirement of the team that contained Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Tigana.

But it is unquestionably time for a new wave to make their mark for France - and with the Clairefontaine academy overseeing the development of youngsters there is no shortage of talent keen to impress.

Links to more France stories



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