It is the end of an era, and possibly the beginning of another. In any case, France always seem to be where you would least expect them. Despite being among the favourites for the UEFA EURO 2008, Les Bleus ended up on the first plane home after a draw and two defeats in which they scored one solitary goal and conceded six. The 2000 generation went out not with a bang but with a whimper, and the country is now setting its sights on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ .

Things could hardly have gone less to plan. After a dull goalless draw with Romania, France suffered their worst ever defeat at a European Championship when they went down 4-1 to the Netherlands. This was followed by a serious injury to Franck Ribery, a red card for Eric Abidal, a penalty, and an own goal from a deflected free kick against Italy to put them out of their misery. For Les Bleus, the tournament was a disaster from start to finish.

"Franck's injury, the red card, the penalty - that was a lot to deal with," said Jeremy Toulalan as he left the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich. "If we hadn't let a goal in, we could maybe have got a result. But at 1-0 down and with only 10 men, it obviously made it easier for them. We had to take the game to them and that left us open to the counter-attack. The refereeing is no excuse - we made a mess of the tournament and there are plenty of reasons why."

Green shoots of recovery?

The Italian debacle was France's first defeat in regulation time to their neighbours from across the Alps since the 1978 FIFA World Cup and served to hasten the retirements from international football of Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram. Despite the fact that the starting XI against the Netherlands had an average age of over 30, a number of fine young players were at their first tournament here, including Toulalan, Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Patrice Evra.

I gained a lot of experience here and I was happy to play in big matches like the ones against Romania and Italy. It's as simple as that
Karim Benzema accentuates the positive.

This however seemed to work against the French as the youngsters lacked the experience to deal with the added pressure. Lyon forward Benzema seemed to be experiencing a mixture of emotions -disappointment, frustration and evenenthusiasm - after the tournament. " . I'm obviously disappointed that we got knocked out, but on a personal level I'm glad to have played with Les Bleus, and I want to play more."

Like many of his team-mates, Gregory Coupet tried to make the best of what was a nightmare ten days. "We didn't win a match so there was no way we could have hoped to have qualified, and we need to ask ourselves a few questions. The Italians and the Dutch have a lot of experience, and let's not forget that they are two excellent teams. Against the Netherlands, despite the scoreline, we never gave up and we had nothing to be ashamed of," said the goalkeeper whose performance in the final group game was another positive sign for the future.

'Painful process'
"[We need to] ask questions of ourselves," says Evra - a suggestion everyone seems to agree with but no-one wants to initiate. As for where to start, could it be time to go back to square one? "The facts are clear: we didn't win any of our three matches," says the Manchester United player. "It's not a question of tactics not being taken on board or a problem with the coaching staff, we are the only ones to blame; we were the ones out on the pitch. I can promise you that we were well prepared for the tournament."

I should have been shouting from the rooftops that the EURO was a tournament to help us prepare for the World Cup
Raymond Domenech admits to regrets.

Toulalan, one of the few players to emerge with any credit, is of the same opinion. "We were certainly looking towards 2010 at the EURO but despite that, we wanted to go all the way at the tournament. You always want to do create a stir at a big event like this one." France certainly did - but for the wrong reasons.

With an uncertain few weeks ahead of him, coach Raymond Domenech is nevertheless looking to the future, even if the doubts are there for all to see. "I'm wondering now whether I should have said this months ago. I should have been clear and said that the EURO was a good tournament for the new generation. This team has a future ahead of it, and we need to take some of the pressure off them. Everyone thought that since we got to the Final of the World Cup, we ought to make the final of the EURO. ."

Makelele shone out like a beacon in the darkness of France's demise and has warned his young former team-mates that there will be trying times ahead. "It will be a painful process but the team needs to be totally rebuilt. I'll always be right behind them cheering them on."

And that is perhaps the one really positive aspect to come out of this championship for France: their first round thrashings and humiliating exit will help them build character and come back stronger - qualities that they were definitely lacking in Switzerland.