The 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea was a tournament of shocks and surprises, with a touch of genuine quirkiness thrown in for good measure. Never before had European audiences been treated to such a revolutionary change to their viewing habits, with late afternoon and evening kick-offs replaced by matches at breakfast time, as pubs in England and Ireland opened doors for business long before the average commuter headed out for work.

It was in this climate of strangeness that the reigning champions and strong favourites France fell at the first hurdle, bundled out of the World Cup in the opening stages. In a group that they had been expected to navigate with ease, they notched just one point and scored no goals. Not since Brazil in 1966 had the reigning champions failed to negotiate their group, and never before had the holders failed to find the net in mounting their defence. For a much-vaunted unit, who were European champions to boot, this was a devastating fall from grace.

Nothing had seemed less likely in Rotterdam’s De Kuip stadium on July 2, 2000, when Roger Lemerre threw his head skyward in acknowledgement of a higher power and, no doubt, give thanks to his father who had died the week before. France’s coach, who had succeeded Aimé Jacquet after the World Cup victory two years previously, had just seen his charges add the European Championship to that world crown. They were now even better than they had been on home soil in 1998.

The extra time equalizer by Sylvain Wiltord, followed by David Trezeguet’s golden goal winner minutes later, had rescued the French after it looked like Italy’s doggedness in Rotterdam might bring victory for Cesare Maldini’s men. For France, adding the European title to the World Cup put them in a select category, for only Helmut Schön’s great German team of the early-1970s had pulled off the same double. Lemerre’s French team, with Zinedine Zidane as creative fulcrum, was eulogised in much the same way. What now, and who, could stop them?

Having not needed to qualify for the tournament in the Far East, France were able to experiment after the European finals in summer 2000. A Confederations Cup victory was added to the world and European baubles in 2001, as the team tested the conditions in South Korea and Japan to good effect. The French now held every title going and were strongly fancied to go on and repeat the 1998 triumph with a win in Japan and South Korea in 2002. Johan Cruyff, speaking ahead of the finals, felt that there were a few countries that would battle it out for world supremacy but that “above all, France” would prevail in Asia’s maiden World Cup.

The champions were, however, guaranteed the absence of Arsenal schemer Robert Pires. After a fantastic season with the Gunners, Pires injured his cruciate knee ligaments in the Premier League game with Newcastle in March to such an extent that he was ruled out for up to nine months. In the French camp there was little doubt as to the cause. Contemplating the loss of his left-sided midfield man, Lemerre lamented:

“We know the players who are playing loads of games during the season become very fragile and we think Pires’s injury is due to the accumulation of games. Pires and [Thierry] Henry are the two players who have played the most this season. They have played around 45 or 47 games. After a certain limit, it becomes very dangerous. They play at a very high level. The competition and the pressures are very high and it can have serious consequences on their health.”

In Glasgow on 15 May, Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen to land their ninth European crown as the continental season came to its close. Zinedine Zidane’s virtuoso match-winning effort on 45 minutes was a goal worthy of any final, giving his team victory by 2-1. It looked as if the great man was laying down his marker for the World Cup to follow. On that Wednesday night in the west of Scotland, the World Cup and France’s opener against Senegal was just 16 days away. Enough time, that is, for an even greater spanner to be thrown into the French works.

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When France arrived in South Korea, they played the co-hosts in what turned out to be a costly friendly. Less than a week before the tournament curtain raiser Zidane limped off and sat out the second half of the game. The next day French Football Federation boss Claude Simonet broke the news that the French media and their fans desperately did not want to hear:

“I have some slightly worrying news. I have been told the results of the x-ray and Zinedine Zidane will be absent for two matches. For the moment that’s the result of the x-ray.”

Later, Simonet’s worst fears came to light when it was revealed that Zidane had indeed suffered a tear in the median third of the quadriceps. Even before a ball was kicked it was turning out to be a World Cup marked by exotic anatomical references. First there was Beckham’s metatarsal, then Zizou’s quadriceps. It was Ireland’s captain, however, who wanted to reserve the most painful injury for his own boss, Mick McCarthy. Thankfully for Big Mick, Roy Keane’s anatomically impossible yearning did not come to pass; instead it was the Irish captain who departed Saipan for home. Luckily, Mick McCarthy’s now famous bollocks were, for the time being at least, safe from harm.

In contemplating his own superstar’s enforced absence, Roger Lemerre observed the overwhelming team spirit of the Koreans, a remark which was highly prescient given their subsequent run to the semi-finals: “When a team like Korea is playing in front of their home crowd they are a very difficult team to beat. We had a difficult time with their strength of spirit – Guus Hiddink has done well.”

And so it was official: the reigning world champions would begin their defence against Senegal on May 31 without their main man. In front of a crowd of 62,000 in Seoul’s World Cup stadium, France and Senegal began the month-long odyssey at 8:30pm local time. It quickly became apparent that this could be a re-run of Argentina’s opening day nightmare against Cameroon in 1990. Down the left flank in particular, and through the middle, France looked vulnerable to the pace of El Hadji Diouf, Khalilou Fadiga, Papa Bouba Diop and Salif Diao.

Far from looking like the powerful Adonis of yore, Marcel Desailly suddenly resembled an old man wading through syrup as he was continually embarrassed and found lacking in pace. Frank Leboeuf in the centre of defence, and Youri Djorkaeff, were two more that looked as though anno domini had caught up with them.

It was Djorkaeff who was embarrassingly caught in possession on the halfway line by Diao, robbed of the ball like an old granny witnessing the theft of her handbag at the bus stop. The Senegalese midfielder then located Diouf down the left to cross, where Bouba Diop slid the ball home at the second attempt. Commentating on ITV, Clive Tyldesley summed up the shock for all when he blurted out: “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Trezeguet and Thierry Henry both hit the woodwork for France, as did Fadiga for Senegal, but it was Senegal who took the three points as Japorea 2002 began with a shock.

For France’s second match with Uruguay on June 6, Lemerre dropped one of his old soldiers, Djorkaeff, in favour of the Werder Bremen playmaker Johan Micoud. Debuting for Les Bleus in 1999, Micoud was in many ways a like-for-like replacement for Zidane – if, indeed, there could really be such a thing at the time – with a quick mind and fresher legs than the ageing Djorkaeff. In the 17th minute Leboeuf was replaced by Vincent Candela in the centre of defence, but it was an incident in the 25th minute that proved to have the greatest impact on the match, and on France’s tournament future.

At full stretch going in to the tackle, Henry went in studs up right under the nose of referee Felipe Ramos. What at first seemed harsh was in fact an unavoidable straight red for the Arsenal striker. Once again lacking their usual verve and vitality France ended the match 0-0, and with one point from six. The final group game against Denmark was a do or die situation as, unbelievably, France had to win to remain in the World Cup.

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Remaining in South Korea for the final game of Group A with the Danes, France were sans Thierry Henry but sporting Zidane, whose injured thigh was still heavily strapped. Kicking off at 3:30pm local time the occasion and the demands were too much for the still suffering Zizou, who was clearly not match fit. Goals in the 22nd and 67th minutes from Dennis Rommedahl and Jon Dahl Tomasson sent Denmark through and the much garlanded world champions out. It was an unthinkable scenario just a month earlier. How had it come to this?

It would have been difficult for any team at that time – or indeed any in the history of the game – to surmount the challenge of defending a world crown minus the skills of a player of Zidane’s stature. Difficult, although not, however, impossible. After all, Holland had travelled to Argentina 24-years earlier without the services of the greatest player of the age in Johan Cruyff and still managed to reach a World Cup final. Great though Cruyff was, Holland managed to do considerably more than “get by” thanks to their understanding of, and implementation of, a system of play that was appreciated throughout the squad.

With France in 2002 it was asking an awful lot of Djorkaeff, or the gifted Micoud, to fill the boots of the legend that was Zidane. Djorkaeff was pushing 34 in Korea and few would lay claim that he was even approaching Zidane’s pedigree. Several of France’s old guard were clearly in eclipse, too: Desailly was 33, Leboeuf was nearing 34 by the close of the campaign, while Lizarazu was 32 and Emmanuel Petit was 31. Although hardly Jurassic Park material, they had no doubt been sated with success since 1998.

Of the younger players, both Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry admitted to exhaustion after a long and successful double-winning season with Arsenal. Vieira admitted to feeling “cooked” at the end of the domestic campaign, hardly the ideal physical and mental state for a player about to play in a World Cup, and especially one who would be taking on the role of his country’s midfield enforcer. Perhaps the abiding image of France’s campaign in the Far East is of Sylvain Wiltord, prostrate with exhaustion, on the pitch’s edge following his substitution in the 83rd minute against Denmark. He, too, had endured a long season with Arsenal in England. Not for nothing was this called the ‘World Cup of fatigue’ by some.

The very nature of the French footballing diaspora meant that their fall was more difficult to forecast than was the case with Spain at Brazil 2014. When Barcelona and Real Madrid both received thrashings from German opposition in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals, and when Spain themselves lost 3-0 to Brazil in that summer’s Confederation Cup final, it was apparent that tiki-taka was returning slimmer dividends at the top-level. With France in 2002, however, a squad that was spread across Europe’s elite leagues made it more difficult to assess collective frailty outside of international friendlies.

Roger Lemerre was replaced by Jacques Santini in 2002, who then stood aside for Raymond Domenech in 2004. By then Desailly, Djorkaeff, Leboeuf, Lizarazu, Petit, Wiltord, Pires and Dugarry had all gone. The remaining French veterans were not done yet, though. In 2006, clad perpetually in the change strip of all white in a strength-sapping German summer, they summoned up one last effort to get to the World Cup final in Berlin against Italy. The old pals Zidane, Henry, Barthez, Vieira, Thuram and Makélélé, augmented by some fresh blood in the form of Ribéry, Malouda, Abidal, Sagnol and Gallas, began to play with a swagger following a stuttering opening group stage.

France then came to life in the knock-out stages against Spain, Brazil and Portugal before the drama of penalties swayed the cup Italy’s way in the final. Zidane left his mark on World Cup 2006, not least on Marco Materazzi’s sternum in the final. It was France’s number 10, however, who seemed to rejuvenate his listless teammates earlier on in the tournament.

Back in 2002, however, France’s return home was not met with disgrace as it was in 2010 after the debacle of South Africa. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that some legs had got tired, while some needed to be moved on, while those of the maestro must just be left to heal.

By Gareth Bland. Follow @peakdistrictman