Still France have not scored a goal at the World Cup finals since Emmanuel Petit rounded off victory in the 1998 final against Brazil. After going home from Japan four years ago without one, they laboured in vain against a dogged Switzerland here yesterday, never beginning to motor to any great purpose in the 31C heat. At the final whistle there were boos from their heavily outnumbered and ultimately disenchanted supporters, while several players bickered among themselves.
Thierry Henry was allowed little rope by his Arsenal team-mate Philippe Senderos, who would have been named man of the match ahead of the respective anchormen Claude Makelele and Johann Vogel but for one howler in the first half that should have led to a goal. Late in the game Senderos was joined by his even younger club colleague Johan Djourou as France sent on Louis Saha in a quest for that elusive goal. Until then Henry lacked the required support.
Twice these sides drew while qualifying for Germany from the Republic of Ireland's group, and the Swiss were clearly delighted to have completed the hat-trick against their old rivals. The country's football has improved of late, by concentrating on youth development and introducing numerous sons of immigrants like Senderos.
"France were stronger than us, especially in the first half, but we defended well," said Kobi Kuhn, their wily old bird of a coach.
The France coach Raymond Domenech, with some of his country's media representatives for revealing his line-up after spying at a closed training session, blamed a dry pitch rather than his players for this performance.
All is fair in love and World Cups, the French press would doubtless claim after correctly divining that Franck Ribéry, the young playmaker from Marseilles who tormented England's Under-21 side in the European Championship, would be given only his fourth senior international appearance. Playing predominantly down the left, he struggled to make the desired impression despite being involved in France's two most promising moments of the first half.
On the half-hour Henry nutmegged the left-back Ludovic Magnin and a lucky bounce carried the ball to Ribéry, who could only hook it over the bar. Soon afterwards he was allowed clear on the right of the penalty area by Senderos' ghastly error and needed only to square an accurate pass to Henry to set up the opening goal. But he gave the striker a poor one, which was driven against Patrick Muller's hand amid unavailing shouts for a penalty.
Switzerland, however, had earlier come closest of all to scoring in their only dangerous attack of the half. The unimpressive Vieira's foul led to Tranquillo Barnetto living up to his first name by calmly floating a free-kick beyond the dozing defenders as Senderos and Alexander Frei homed in. Neither managed a touch on the ball, which bounced against the far post before Eric Abidal arrived to hack clear. There was a bizarre incident to finish the half when Vogel was booked for not putting the ball into touch so that Henry could have treatment, even though the Frenchman was off the field and being attended to. That was one of eight cards shown by the referee Valentin Ivanov in an eccentric performance.
By the start of the second half, two-thirds of the pitch were mercifully in the shade. Fabien Barthez, in the remaining sunny part and declining a cap, suddenly found himself shading his eyes with increased urgency as the Swiss exerted some pressure on him. He did not trust himself to catch Magnin's fierce free-kick and then had to save a downward header from the substitute Daniel Grygax with his feet.
France's needs became more urgent once Vieira shot feebly wide from a good position and Senderos brought off a superb tackle to thwart Sylvain Wiltord. So Saha was summoned from the dug-out to replace Ribéry. But Djourou came on to help Senderos to keep the French at bay, the substitute Vikash Dhorasoo sending a final chance tantalisingly wide of the far post with a minute to play. The Swiss and their thousands of fans were left drained, but confident of reaching the next stage for only the second time since hosting the finals 52 years ago.