James Lawton: French kings deposed by brave forces of equality

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The Independent Football

Saying farewell to France was always going to be poignant. Greatness cut down before its time is a little death not just for the victims but all those capable of peeking above the trenches of partisanship.

Saying farewell to France was always going to be poignant. Greatness cut down before its time is a little death not just for the victims but all those capable of peeking above the trenches of partisanship.

Certainly the spectator dressed as Napoleon and carrying a sign with the mis-spelt word 'Waterloo' crossed out might have been surprised by the fraternal mourning of a wider world. However, if the kings are gone, long live the brave and egalitarian wind invigorating this wonderfully promising 17th World Cup.

Little Denmark, who perhaps we should not forget won the European Championship in 1992, were well worth their smooth 2-0 victory and banishing of the champions at the South Korean port city of Inchon. Morten Olsen might have been speaking on behalf of the coaches of other lightly-considered teams like Senegal, who qualified for the last 16 behind Denmark in a tumultuous 3-3 draw with Uruguay, the Republic of Ireland, Croatia and the United States who have brought an unexpectedly competitive edge to the great tournament.

The Danish coach said: "Yes it's true we had good organisation. All the smaller nations have to organise themselves very well if they are to to make any impact on the World Cup. But this victory wasn't just about organisation and tactics. This was also about good players rising to the big challenge – the biggest of their lives, I'm very proud of my boys. They took the game to the world champions – and they won."

Still, it was impossible to stifle a sigh of regret when Dennis Rommedahl and Jon Dahl Tomasson wheeled in Madame Guillotine with their well-taken goals.

Patrick Vieira looked empty, both of fuel and feeling. Zinedine Zidane stood stunned, bathed in sweat and angst. This was supposed to be his coronation and what will he be in four years' time? He will still be a great player but a 34-year-old great player, and if ever a man was programmed for glory it was surely Zinedine Zidane in the year of 2002. His magnificent goal in the European Cup final was supposed to be an exquisite hors d'oeuvre. Now it is a forgotten morsel.

Thierry Henry's red card that kept him out of the game was a burning reproach. His brilliant touches had threatened to keep France alive in the opening game, but he hinted at a sense of doom when he said how much the squad missed the absent Robert Pires. "This could have been his tournament," said Henry. It was a loss which seemed to have reached into French bones, making them old.

Olsen and his Senegal counterpart, the long-haired Frenchman Bruno Metsu, have set a superb tone for the tournament with their brilliant annexation of a Group A through which the French were expected to march imperiously.

But the bottom has fallen out of French football imperialism here and the signs were ominous on that first night in Seoul, when Senegal played with a beautiful optimism in the soft drizzle. Yesterday the words of the Senegal-born Vieira on the eve of the World Cup could scarcely have been more haunting.

"I hope and believe we can win the World Cup again and if we do we would be one of the three or four top teams in the world – and I mean ever," Vieira said. "There would be no doubt about it. We are already part of the history of France because we were the first French team to win the World Cup. To do it again, having won Euro 2000 in between, would be fantastic, unbelievable."

Vieira's fantasy became a nightmare soon enough, and his heavy-legged tournament invites all over again question marks against the pressure applied to the world's leading players. Zidane came here crocked and France's engine was plainly near to exhaustion, but they will excuse the world if the period of mourning is brief. Especially in places like Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Dublin.

Senegal's impact has been that of free spirits, not least that of big Papa Bouba Diop, who added two more goals against Uruguay yesterday to the one that broke France in Seoul. Ireland's place in the second round is the result of extraordinary character, and if Roy Keane is reflecting at all on his bizarrely-timed rebellion, he may be considering the irony that the competitive spirit of his old team-mates – something he questioned so fiercely before storming out of their training camp – seems only to have gone from strength to strength in his absence. His namesake Robbie Keane has become something of a cult figure, at least in the commentary box, where Japanese broadcasters are caught by a surge of excitement whenever "Lobbie" gets the ball.

Coach Mick McCarthy was a tormented figure before his team put away Saudi Arabia and the news came in that the part of the African football revolution represented by Cameroon had subsided meekly against Germany. "It's not comfortable having your backside in the bacon slicer," he said afterwards. Remarkably, though, all parts of the coach's anatomy are unscathed after a first round campaign which many felt had been destroyed by his captain's defection. Instead, the Irish, like Denmark, Senegal and the Americans, have asserted the value of dogged spirit and a refusal to lay down before the weight of bigger reputations.

Robbie Keane's equalising goal against Germany in stoppage time last week was one of the tournament's best moments so far. It came from a team bound by a magnificent refusal to submit to difficult circumstances and if Spain, their likely second round opponents, carry some of the World Cup's most formidable talent, they cannot presume any edge in the important matter of resolve.

But then who can? This is a World Cup that has already committed regicide, and if the loss of the grace of Henry and the genius of Zidane is a high price, the aficionados of fine football will have to acknowledge a wider benefit. Just 12 years ago in Italia '90 football was in danger of death by strangulation. Here, it is filled with the breath of bold life.