James Lawton: Mantle passes to stylish France after South Americans fail the ultimate test

Klinsmann's men have thrilled the nation but France are now creating most excitement
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The Independent Football

It may come as something of a surprise to the drama kings of English football, but their traditionally early and inevitably mawkish farewell to the greatest sports show on earth is already a faded and rather less than uplifting memory.

The real pain here, at least for all those prepared to look beyond the barricades of sporting nationalism, was the departure of the South Americans. As Argentina, who brought haunting beauty, and Brazil, the potentially brilliant circus act that died in rehearsal, packed their bags it was as though a cloud had suddenly covered the sun.

Not since the Brazilians of 1982 were ejected by a superbly functional Italy has the rhythm of a World Cup been so shockingly robbed of artistic expression.

This time there was more than a long sigh. There was an edge of bitterness to the sorrow. Brazil, and especially the world's twice-elected best player, Ronaldinho, either could not or would not play. And if that wasn't bad enough, there was the enraging fact that Lionel Messi, the criminally underused favourite of Diego Maradona and one of the prospective lights of the tournament, did not get a significant chance to unfurl his mesmerising talent.

Yet, remarkably, there is a new edge to the 18th World Cup. It has plainly absorbed the double hit of South American farewells and remains vibrantly alive, despite the absence of the teams who were supposed to define its greatness. No one expressed this more generously than a friend of the anguished Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who said: "Europe shouldn't cry for us or Argentina; we have had our chances and for one reason or another we have failed. Germany, Italy, France and Portugal haven't. They've shown us that, however much talent you have, there has to be something beyond that at the heart of a team. There has to a belief, a purpose, an understanding of what makes a team.

"We trusted our old players out of sentiment; it's a Brazilian habit, and Carlos Alberto confided at the start of the tournament: 'If we win, it will be because we have the most talented players, if we lose it will be my fault.'

"One thing Brazilians cannot do easily is step away from the past; we love Ronaldo not for what he is but what he has been, and at this level it is a dangerous thing. The Europeans have been too good for us, too strong, too committed in what they are doing, and we will have to think again if we want our sixth World Cup in South Africa in four years' time.

"This is still a great World Cup because in the end the important thing is not what you promise, however brilliantly you do it, but what you deliver. The best European teams have delivered."

Unless the superb defence of Italy frustrates Jürgen Klinsmann's Germany tonight in the stronghold of Dortmund and Deco brings back extravagantly to Portugal something missing against England, the wonderfully redeeming prospect is the host nation against a renascent France in Berlin on Sunday.

That probability certainly flowered in the mind of Patrick Vieira, once again recognisable as a midfielder of bite and authority as he played a magnificent supporting role in Zinedine Zidane's tour de force of re-incarnation against Brazil on Saturday night.

At the end the result was a rare act of grace in a game that is so often besieged by the morality of the gutter.

Vieira embraced the downcast Ronaldinho and said to him, "You lost tonight but don't forget what you have done, who you are and what you have given the world... It is our honour to beat players of your quality. You will be back."

Honour was the theme of the compelling night in Frankfurt. Lilian Thuram, a World Cup and European Championship winner who at 34 has entered with Zidane, who is the same age, an extraordinary pact to recreate the past, said: "We came back to play international football because we wanted to keep the honour of our achievements ... we believed that we could do something again, that before we grew old we could have the feeling again of doing something very well. One more time we could we represent ourselves well at a World Cup."

There were many doubters, not least in France, when Zidane launched the campaign on a sunlit evening in Stuttgart against the dour, hard-running Swiss. There were jeers at the end of a goalless draw and coach Raymond Domenech was accused of running football's version of an old folks home.But he kept faith with the great Zidane, while introducing the street-smart aggression of the new star, Franck Ribéry, and against lauded Spain Les Bleus made the most dramatic and satisfying announcement. Yet before that, and even in the Swiss game, there were indications that Zidane was coming to something like form. He played a handful of perfect passes, one quite sublimely to Thierry Henry breaking down the left.

Against Spain Zidane could still play his old game of class, enchantment and burning relevance, and Spain shrivelled before our eyes.

The Brazilian perspective is particularly generous to France, Parreira's confidant saying: "All the semi-finalists have shown great motivation. Klinsmann has brilliantly driven the Germans, the Italians under Marcello Lippi seem to be playing for their football souls, saying, 'Look we've left the match-fixers and the influence-peddlers behind, we can win matches on our own,' and Scolari is obviously getting everything that is at his disposal with Portugal.

"But the French, they beat us beautifully - so beautifully we didn't have the heart to foul Zinedine. He was so wonderful it was hard for a Brazilian to kick him. I think he drew just one foul. It might be different for him against Portugal."

No doubt it will be, but here again we come to the essential point about any World Cup finals of genuine distinction. The investigation is so thorough that the likelihood of false champions is remote. In the last throes of his failing campaign, England's coach Sven Goran Eriksson said he would take bad performances if England kept winning. It was a football illiteracy of a mind-numbing order.

France's performance level has been rising match by match. Klinsmann's men have thrilled the nation and given the tournament a central drama. But it is the French who are now creating most excitement.

They are doing it with the promise of a beautiful game - one that has been endorsed by Brazil. In the life of any World Cup there could not, of course, be a more vital sign.

Hanging Ronaldo out to dry should not allow Rooney off the hook

The widespread instinct in England to heap blame on Cristiano Ronaldo for the dismissal of Wayne Rooney is sickening. Ronaldo's behaviour was not a hymn to the best of human nature, by no means. But then it is also true Rooney, who has been praised for so long, and so legitimately, was the one who stamped Ricardo Carvalho in the genitals. It was Rooney who displayed, once again, a worrying lack of control.

If Ronaldo behaved in a contemptible way, if he showed no evidence that he is a comrade-in-arms at Manchester United, it does nothing to disguise the extent of Rooney's failure to control himself. He fought with great character to force himself into the tournament, but the manner of his departure could not have been more disturbing. Players pursuing greatness do not behave like that.

Better than running a picture of Ronaldo and inviting its readers to throw a dart "at the tart", Britain's best-selling tabloid might have pointed out that nothing unravels outstanding talent quicker than a lack of discipline. No one right now needs madcap support less than Rooney. He has to be told he has responsibilities to both himself and his team. But given the denial culture of English football, who can say the word will ever be passed?

Klinsmann preaches unification

How is it that, on top of his other striking achievements, Germany's coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, has managed so to inspire his captain, Michael Ballack, so soon after the pair appeared to be involved in full-scale war? The common cause was apparently sealed when Klinsmann, who lives in California where, it seems, a day cannot be passed without a touch of therapy, tried a little psychology of his own.

The coach pointed out that Germany have still to win their first World Cup whereas three were collected by West Germany. Ballack, who is from East Germany, is clearly now hell-bent on making history.