World Cup Countdown: 4 Weeks to Go -Lemerre’s France Show Their Age as Les Bleus Flop in 2002

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By a distance, the pressure felt by the defending champions coming into a World Cup is by definition perhaps the heaviest burden in sport.

As champions of the footballing world since the tournament’s inception in 1930, just two nations have entered the World Cup as reigning champions and have left a tournament still as top dogs.

Only Italy and Brazil have done it between 1934 and 1938, and 1958-1962 respectively. No nation has retained the Jules Rimet or World Cup trophy in over 50 years.

16 years ago in 2002, France were that team who arrived in Japan and South Korea as world champions, but left within two weeks of the tournament beginning in the far east, returning with tails between their legs, having crashed out of the group stages – rock bottom of the standings no less – with just a single solitary point to show for their efforts.

It is one of the most infamous and remarkable failures in the storied history of the tournament, as the world watched on a-gasp with a mix of astonishment, shock and – with the exception of fans of Les Bleus that summer – hilarity, as France imploded spectacularly.

Even without the injured Zinedine Zidane, Roger Lemerre’s men were expected to safely negotiate a group involving France, Denmark and Senegal, before ‘Zizou’ was set to return in time for the knockout stages. 

The French opened the tournament against a unfancied African side, but who, on the half-hour mark took a shock lead through Papa Bouba Diop.

As the spine of the French side and were unable to influence a game that became an increasingly desperate outing in the Seoul sunshine, Les Bleus fell to an opening defeat that blew Group A wide open.

As the press in both France and across the world digested what they had seen, behind the scenes there was little evidence of joie de vivre in the French camp. 

The same squad that had lifted the World Cup on home soil four years earlier and had turned Parisian capital red, white and blue where now showings signs of their veteran status, with specific reference to Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf in defence. 

Whilst Lemerre’s side was indeed largely bereft of talisman Zidane and Arsenal winger Robert Pires having suffered ligament damage in March of that year, the double absence alone could not disguise that there was division in the ranks but also an air of complacency having dominated world football for the previous four years.

After Denmark had beaten Uruguay in their respective opening match, both France and La Celeste approached their crunch clash against one another in Busan needing to avoid defeat to remain in the competition.

It was a position that weighed heavily on the defending champions and in the 25th of the game, that pressure told in the worst way possible. 

With France still lacking their apparent swagger and verve but needing goals, Thierry Henry went in late on a challenge on midfielder Marcelo Romero – studs up – and was dismissed by referee Felipe Ramos to the fury of the Gunners’ striker.

With France a man down, Les Bleus struggled to make any impact on the game, as the Uruguayans in the end settled for a point.

The draw left France on one point, having yet to score in the group and needing to beat Denmark to guarantee progressing, as both the Danes and Senegal took control of the qualifying spots. Both sides need to simply avoid defeat to seal both qualifying berths into the last 16.

With the scenario of the reigning champions on the verge of defeat, France need a win against Morten Olsen’s side to avoid an embarrassing early exit – without the services of the banned Henry also, but with Zidane who was hurried back.

As David Trezeguet – much like the majority of his team-mates – huffed and puffed in Incheon, Dennis Rommedahl netted in the 22nd-minute to plunge the French into deep trouble, before Jon Dahl Tomasson continued his prolific run in the tournament netting for the third successive and scoring his fourth goal after the group stages alone.

As the France bench watched on in horror through their fingers, the realisation that Lemerre’s men were set for an early flight home to Charles De Gaulle, without a goal and just a single point to their name, came crashing home – or perhaps more aptly, out.

As shocks go in World Cup history, France’s failure in Japan and South Korea is up there as one of the more grandiose ones, indeed some debate whether that side was the worst side to ever defend a footballing crown.

It was a remarkable fall from grace for the champions. A team that consisted of Henry, Zidane, Desailly, Leboeuf, Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit could fail so spectacularly on the same world stage they owned in their own back yard at France 98, had left the competition without even a whimper.

The power shift in world football had changed seismically.

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