Four years ago, almost to the day, I was the proudest man in the world as I walked with the Scotland team, all resplendent in our national costume, the kilt, on to the Parc des Princes. We were about to fire the opening salvos of France '98. Yesterday I had to settle for a berth in the media gallery instead of the dug-out as the greatest show on earth got under way here.
And what a way it was for the tournament to start. Senegal were sensational: skilful, well organised and with an exemplary attitude. There was no question here of the better team being outmuscled by inferior opposition as Senegal brought down the world champions.
Those of us who suspected that age might count against the French had all their fears realised. While they have young forwards in Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, France are an ageing side. Seven of last night's team are the wrong side of 30. Four years ago the oldest team in the World Cup were Germany, who averaged 30 years and four months and were cruelly exposed by Croatia.
In contrast to France, Senegal had an average age of 24. They had the youngest – and best – player on the field in 21-year-old El-Hadji Diouf. There is talk of his going to Liverpool and this performance alone will surely have added to his price tag, which was already said to be around £10m.
Although the result might have been very different if Trézéguet's first-half shot had hit the back of the net instead of a post, the French were a great disappointment. At the height of this team's powers, Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu would overlap relentlesly down the flanks. Here, they hardly got forward at all, because they knew they would struggle to regroup defensively.
In the centre of defence Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly were painfully slow and were ruthlessly exposed by Senegal's speedy strikers. France's dilemma was summed up towards the end, when Desailly went up for a corner. It came to nothing, but Desailly found himself stranded upfield without the legs to get back in defence. Even by the time Senegal had played the ball out of their half with a sequence of passes, Desailly had not got back into position.
France had nothing to offer from the bench, particularly in the absence of Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires. I was hugely disappointed in Christophe Dugarry's performance. When I bring on a player for the last 20 minutes of a match I always ask him to put 90 minutes' worth of effort into his limited time on the field, yet Dugarry showed no verve or passion when he came on.
The statistics do not look good for France. Of the 16 World Cups so far, no team have lost their opening match and gone on to win the competition. Indeed, on 14 out of those 16 occasions the competition's winners won their first match. Senegal must now be favourites to win the group and I fear for the French. Even if they do qualify, I would expect them to do so as runners-up and to have to face Argentina in the second round. Roger Lemerre, the coach, has a tough time ahead of him.
It has been easy for me to empathise with national coaches over the past few weeks. Everyone talks of the glamour of the World Cup. This is true when the matches start, but the preparatory period can be very demanding indeed. Just ask Sven Goran Eriksson of England, Mick McCarthy of Ireland, Roger Lemerre, Rudi Völler of Germany, and my good friends from Sweden, Tommy Soderberg and Lars Lagerback. All have had their build-up devilled by problems, particularly injuries, while Cameroon's German coach, Winifred Schäfer, their fourth in 12 months, can count on a bonus dispute which delayed the 1990 quarter-finalists' arrival in Japan and which might well still be festering to the benefit of the Republic of Ireland in Niigata today.
So, with the vital, and in terms of Ireland, controversial, preparation period over, each squad has settled into what amounts to an opulent prison environment during the length of their stay in the competition. Security is such that the players may move only from hotel to training ground to match venue; no normal freedom is possible. The boredom factor is alleviated by favourable results and by good group dynamics. For me, it was significant that the countries with the best team spirit, France and Italy, contested the Euro 2000 final. I certainly expect the Italians to be well to the fore again this time.
The Latin flair of Argentina could make them the team to triumph on this occasion. I went to see Argentina play Germany in Stuttgart recently and came away convinced that they would be right up there during the World Cup. They were superb.
The Argentinians completely outplayed a poor German side and did so without four of their top players. Juan Veron, Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo were not there and Diego Simeone stayed on the bench: they still looked terrific.
I believe that two other former winners will be pushing hard for victory but, unfortunately, I feel that England will not be one of them. Italy and Brazil will be there or thereabouts. Brazil had a tough time in qualifying and can be vulnerable defensively, although Lucio had a fine game for Bayer Leverkusen in the european Cup final at Hampden Park recently before he was injured.
I suspect that England might well struggle against Argentina, for whom Javier Zanetti and Juan Sorin were outstanding in Germany. And, in the opening match against Sweden, Henrik Larsson, whom I have the privilege of seeing regularly in Glasgow, will be a hot handful for Messrs Ferdinand and Campbell. England will also be weary of a fit-again Freddie Ljungberg, who has had such a fantastic last few months with Arsenal. However, should Sven's men survive the qualifying stages anything can happen in the knock-out matches.
Each World Cup throws up a shock. This time we could still be raising eyebrows when Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland team storm through the group stages and leave Germany trailing in their wake. I genuinely believe the Republic could win their group because, even without Roy Keane, they have great spirit and this can go a long way when the chips are down.
In the world of professional sport, football in particular, it is considered soft or weak to allow compassion to infringe on one's emotions. Surely an exception must be made for the United States team who, after just 26 days of mourning following the events of September 11, had to play a crucial World Cup qualifier against Jamaica. Inspired by "Captain America'', Claudio Reyna of Sunderland, who made a fine impression in Scotland with Rangers, the Americans won that match 2-1 and are here to start against Portugal next Wednesday. Although Figo and company will have other ideas I am sure no one, except maybe the local opponents here in Korea, would begrudge them some success and happiness.
One team I shall be watching with interest is Slovenia, coached by Srecko Katanec, the former Stuttgart and Sampdoria player, who was capped 31 times for Yugoslavia. He is the youngest coach in the World Cup and possibly the most devout. I understand that as well as playing tennis in the foothills of his mountain village in Slovenia, he attends church at the top of the mountain for an hour each day. His prayers may well be answered if, having already qualified such a small country for the last two major tournaments, he takes them to the second stage in this World Cup.Reuse content