"Every game has its own story," said Sven Goran Eriksson on the eve of this match. This one had a sting in the tale of the cruellest kind.
This should have been a report of a heroic victory against the odds, of staunch defence against a formidable opposition, of a rookie who became a man and a captain who led the way. Something for Peter Jackson to chew on now he has finished The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Instead it had a Hitchcockian finish as France came through the shower curtain to thrust a dagger into English hearts. Leading through Frank Lampard's brilliantly executed 37th-minute headed goal, England should have clinched the game when Wayne Rooney won a penalty 18 minutes from time. David Beckham stepped up, and saw it saved by his one-time team-mate Fabien Barthez.
England hung on in the face of constant French pressure, into added time. Then Zinedine Zidane struck twice, punishing a brace of English lapses. Beckham left the field in tears. He was not alone.
England now lie bottom of Group B following the goalless draw between Switzerland and Croatia in Leiria earlier in the day. They next play the Swiss, in Coimbra, on Thursday. Eriksson has much to ponder for his own selection as Ledley King, filling the void left by a quartet of absent centre-halves, was superb.
The game had a lively opening in which Patrick Vieira drove over from 20 yards and William Gallas did well to cover as Michael Owen chased a Paul Scholes pass.
This proved a rare sight of goal for Owen as the French took command, monopolising possession. They had a easy fluidity of movement and much neater ball retention. England pulled back, apparently by design, into two banks of white, asking the French to play through them if they could. It seemed a dangerous tactic but it denied Thierry Henry space to turn defenders and Zidane the room to thread a pass. Though Zidane and Vieira both shot wide from 20 yards, only once were England seriously exposed, when Vieira's 14th-minute cross reached David Trezeguet, only for the Juventus striker to head wide.
Offered a similar chance 23 minutes later Lampard would made no mistake. England's opportunities had been reduced to a shot by Scholes which betrayed his lack of conviction after three years without an international goal. Then Bixente Lizarazu shoved Beckham in the back. The England captain responded by whipping in a trademark free-kick and Lampard rose ahead of Trezeguet to head his third England goal. The value of a goal-scoring midfielder was never better underlined.
It was the first goal which the French had conceded in 12 games since Tuncay, of Turkey, scored against them in the Confederations' Cup in Lyon last summer.
It was also, in truth, a steal, utterly against the run of play. In this it was reminiscent of the quarter-final against Brazil when Owen had stolen away to score. Then, crucially, England failed to hold on to the interval. This time they went in at half-time buoyed by a lead.
The French were not, however, deflated. They began the second period at a gallop, bringing James into action four times in the opening five minutes, Henry the principal protagonist.
England occasionally lifted the siege, Beckham having two long-range efforts before the hour mark, but England's was essentially a rearguard action, with Owen and Rooney takingturns at helping out the beleaguered back eight.
Three-quarters through came an interesting substitution: Darius Vassell for Owen.
It ought to have proved a masterly switch. Within seconds Rooney burst clear on the left, muscling past two defenders and bringing Mikaël Silvestre towards him. Vassell was clear at the top of the goal. Rooney went alone and Silvestre brought him down. Beckham hit the ball well but Barthez, diving to his right, parried.
Rooney now departed, replaced by Emile Heskey, while Owen Hargreaves replaced Scholes, the better to deal with France's newly enhanced right flank, Sylvain Wiltord and Willy Sagnol having come on. Then, in injury-time, the roof fell in.
Heskey blundered into a clumsy challenge on the edge of the box. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes Zidane stepped up and levelled. Within seconds Henry seized on a poor Gerrard back-pass to bear down on James, who felled him. Zidane did the honours again. There was barely time to kick off.Reuse content