Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 20 News List

France may have made errors with use of old lineup

AP , LISBON, PORTUGAL

The end of France's golden generation came painfully with a 1-0 defeat to outsider Greece in the Euro 2004 quarterfinals. One of the biggest upsets in tournament history, the loss was also a logical conclusion to France's declining fortunes.

Greece's win proved beyond doubt that the glory years are over for the nucleus of a French side which won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship.

"We couldn't be the best forever," veteran defender Bixente Lizarazu said Saturday. "There's no excuses, we did not manage to step up a level."

France's new coach, to be appointed this summer, must rebuild. Boss Jacques Santini has stood down, while the likes of 32-year-old Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, 32, Marcel Desailly, 35, and Lizarazu, 34, may soon follow suit.

"For certain players this will be the end," Santini said. "Others may be asking themselves that question.'' France's ascendancy began with a semifinal appearance at Euro 96 and, over four years, Les Bleus paraded the world's soccer fields with swagger, arrogance, and discipline.

"The '98 team was magnificent," said 96-cap Lizarazu.

"We're not the same team anymore. There's something missing."

When they exited the 2002 World Cup in the first round, serious doubts were raised.

A faultless qualifying route to Euro 2004 and a 21-match unbeaten run went some way to quieten the critics. Could France could prove 2002 was a blip by winning Euro 2004?

No.

They failed: in defense, in midfield, and in attack.

Only goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and midfielder Patrick Vieira emerged with credit. A fragile defense conceded five times as tactical confusion turned an impregnable rearguard into a poor one.

Heading into the tournament, France had not conceded in 11 games and 1,044 minutes. But Santini, unable to decide who to start and who to leave out, lacked authority and the defense suffered.

Desailly, once known as "The Rock," crumbled to pieces. A huge blunder marked his only appearance, in the 2-2 draw with Croatia, when he gave away a goal.

Santini must wonder why he picked him.

He appeared to suggest Saturday that the 116-cap veteran captain questioned his authority.

Desailly, massively influential despite a peripheral role, used his status while Santini was unsure of his own.

"Some players had a modified role in the group," Santini said, referring to Desailly's reduced playing time. "These can make the group fragile. Sometimes a grain of sand can ruin everything.

"The explanation of my choices were made clear to him [Desailly]," he added. "Each case is specific. Some people came here to decide their futures in their hotel rooms."

Other senior players, like Lizarazu and Robert Pires directly challenged Santini's tactics. To their glee, the skeptical French press were spoon-fed free ammunition. The team lacks fluidity, the players are out of position, Zidane is hogging the ball too much, Thierry Henry is not being used properly, Santini is afraid to take risks.

Perhaps most cutting of all were remarks from World Cup winning coach Aime Jacquet, who said Santini's team lacked confidence.

A defensive Santini was loathe to enter into debate.

"If players and others want to talk, that's their problem," he said. "You [the press] had your way of seeing things, I had mine."

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