France so near yet so far
Ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, few French fans thought their side would be good enough to go all the way to the Final.
But over the course of 120 hard-fought minutes against Italy, even fewer entertained the possibility that Les Bleus would leave Berlin without the Trophy. Nevertheless, it is precisely this bittersweet outcome that Raymond Domenech and his players have had to come to terms with.
When the France squad first set foot on German soil, it is fair to say that optimistic supporters were thin on the ground. After a catastrophic Korea/Japan 2002 campaign, a UEFA EURO 2004 showing that was scarcely any more inspiring, a laboured qualifying campaign and some unconvincing friendlies, expectations were conservative in the extreme, with the most confident predicting a quarter-final place at best.
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Les Bleus' first two matches did little to persuade the doubters otherwise. Short on sparkle in their 0-0 stalemate with Switzerland and then gripped by fear in the 1-1 draw with Korea Republic, they quickly dug themselves into an uncomfortable hole. Left with no choice but to win their final group game against Togo by two clear goals, the French fortunately rediscovered the spark that had been so sadly lacking just in time for this crucial encounter.
A substandard start
"After the Korea Republic game, there was a lot of soul-searching," William Gallas told FIFAworldcup.com. "We talked about it at length together and that really helped. There was a kind of turning point between that game and the one with Togo. It was as if we'd been paralysed with the fear of going out in the first round again. Although we knew we were good enough, we were somehow unable to express ourselves. But against the Togolese, we set ourselves free."
With the demons of 2002 firmly exorcised, the French were then able to start their competition afresh against Spain in the Round of 16. It was from this point that Domenech's men gradually began to show their true class. Despite falling behind on the half-hour mark, France restored parity through their find of the tournament, Frank Ribery.
They then struck two more goals in the final ten minutes through Patrick Vieira the player who best personified the team's sudden upturn in form at Germany 2006 and Zinedine Zidane. This was a watershed match, if ever there was one. It was after the quarter-final against reigning champions Brazil, however, that their stock really sky-rocketed.
In impressive command throughout and with Zinedine Zidane once again firing on all cylinders, the French secured a comfortable 1-0 win courtesy of Thierry Henry's well-struck volley. From then on, back in France, every move the team made was followed avidly by the entire country and the scenes of joy in the streets of the main cities were almost on a par with 1998.
Zidane's sad send-off
For the Zidane-Thuram-Barthez generation, France's path through the tournament was akin to a wonderful last taste of the limelight. After Spain (their quarter-final opponents at EURO 2000) and Brazil (the opposition in the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final), the prospect of Portugal in the semi-final in Munich also evoked happy memories, for France had beaten them in the semi-finals at EURO 2000.
The French won a tight encounter thanks to a 33rd-minute penalty from Zidane that took them to their second FIFA World Cup Final. And the fact that another old foe - France had beaten Italy in the final of EURO 2000 - awaited them at the Olympiastadion was viewed by many as an omen.
What happened next will be remembered for many years to come. Following a hesitant first-half performance, the French players were quite happy to go into the changing rooms on level terms at 1-1, after Zidane's early penalty was cancelled out by Marco Materazzi. In the second half, they were the better side but were unable to make their superiority tell.
Extra time came and Zidane went close to making a little more history with a second World Cup Final brace but Gianluigi Buffon was equal to his powerful header. Shortly after, the French captain was shown a red card for a head-butt on Materazzi in the 111th minute. Worse was to follow as the lottery of the penalty shoot-out went Italy's way (5-3), leaving the French players utterly disconsolate.
Consigning disappointment to past
Losing a Final always hurts, so it is difficult to retain anything other than painful memories. This is especially true when a team has shown so many good qualities and won back the hearts of its supporters, only to stumble at the last hurdle. That said, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
Despite the fact that Zidane has hung up his boots for good, Les Bleus are safe in the knowledge that they now have Ribery to carry the torch. In his first matches in the national shirt at the age of 23, the Marseille star showed the maturity to deploy his immense ability in service of the team.
A similarly positive assessment applies elsewhere, with Gallas growing in stature in defence, while in the wide areas, Eric Abidal and Willy Sagnol have fast become automatic choices and influential leaders on the field. In his role as vice-captain, meanwhile, Vieira was constantly regrouping the troops and initiating the French play, and when he was forced to go off injured in the Final, his replacement Alou Diarra was as solid as a rock in the same midfield berth.
So although the class of 98's swansong in Berlin ended on something of a sour note, Domenech and France can look forward with optimism. When things got tough during the qualifiers for Germany 2006, the coach did not hesitate to put his faith in fresh talents like 22-year-old Rio Mavuba, who looks likely to form part of the team's backbone in the near future.
Talking about 2010 does not yet come easily, but one thing is for sure: the future Bleus will make it a point of honour to ensure that their German disappointment is swiftly consigned to history.