No one can get it wholly right

FRANCE are down and out. Wretchedly out, Beaten twice in this World Cup and with a draw and without a single goal to their name. So what now of all those eulogies to French football, that self abasement in other soccer countries, not least in England, where it was believed that the French had somehow magically got it right. That their soccer academies were producing fine players as though by a conveyor belt, that their victories in the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro tournament presaged World Cup success again in 2002 and goodness knows what more.

Having watched their opening game against Senegal and digested what happened in the other two, my mind went irresistibly back in time; as far as the 1940s and the 1950s. It was some 60 years ago when the celebrated Hungarian writer, Arthur Koestler, described something that he chose to call French Flu. French influenza. What he meant was that there was a tendency in English literary circles to extol anything and everything written in France, at the higher level, at the expense of what was being written in England. He took issue with this, divined it as no better than a form of literary snobbery. There was no way he insisted that anything written in France was by definition good, and better than anything that was being written in England.

Fast forward to 1953. A brilliant Hungarian team came to Wembley, utterly outplayed England and, in winning 6-3, smashed the long lasting English record of invincibility at home against foreign teams. The following May in Budapest, the Hungarians humiliated England to an even greater extent, thrashing them 7-1.

In the interim, a book appeared in England called Learn To Play The Hungarian Way. How we English longed to! How we grovelled and deferred to the so called Magic Magyars, who seemed to have got everything right where we had got it wrong. How intensely we examined their training routines, the great variety they included in them, giving place to other sports than football. How we pored over their tactics and strategies. And then?

As they used to say in all those old Hollywood movies, and how I once even heard a Pole in London proclaim, "Comes the Revolution." The brave Hungarian revolution of 1956 ultimately and brutally crushed by the Russians. As luck and chance had it, that moment saw Honved, or Army, club team, into which most of Hungary's stars had been coopted, touring abroad. It was the perfect opportunity for such heroes as Ferenc Puskas, the captain, Sandor "Golden Head" Kocsis and the clever outside left Zoltan Czibor to stay abroad and look for riches there. All three of them went to Spain, Puskas eventually got clearance to play for Real Madrid, Kocsis and Czibor for Barcelona.

And Hungary? They simply degenerated, wilted. By the time it came to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, such remaining stars as right half Josef Bozsik and deep lying centre forward, Nandor Hidegkuti, were into their 30s and slowing down. The formidable Hungarian system had produced no talent to replace Puskas and company. Hungary were knocked out in the first stage by humble little Wales.

And France? What now about that lauded establishment at Clairefontaine, not far from Paris, where young talent is coached into excellence? What can be said of a team which, deprived of its star turn Zinedine Zidane for the first two games, and deploying him despite his torn muscle in the third, simply fades away? Yes, they also badly missed the injured Arsenal attacker, versatile Robert Pires. But shouldn't there have been a host of dazzling replacements waiting in the wings? Yes it was a colossal blow when ill-tempered, undisciplined Thierry Henry got himself rightly sent off against Uruguay. But whose fault was that?

It was however very much the fault of an uninspired team manager Roger Lemerre, succeeding Aime Jacquet, that he should stubbornly and stupidly persist in central defence with the laboured and vulnerable Frank Leboeuf who hadn't even had a good season in the French League with Marseille. France paid heavily for this in the opener against Senegal when the elusive Diouf embarrassed Lebouef three times, one of these occasions leading to the only goal of the game.

So, Au Revoir la Belle France. You turn out, like the 1950s Hungarians - who also lost the 1954 World Cup Final, to be a bit of a myth. The moral is that no country can ever get it wholly right. Well, not for very long.