Au revoir to France

It was the final heartbreak, the exclamation point on the end of a game, the end of an era and the likely end of a career:

The Great Thierry Henry, who has been an integral part, perhaps the essential part, of the great, proud championship "Les Bleus" era, stuck out a foot in a desperate attempt to block a late free kick that would put Italy up 2 - 0 and write "finis" to the glory.

The ball ricocheted off his foot, redirecting the shot to the right side of the net instead of the left where French keeper Gregory Coupet seemingly had a bead on it.

As it slammed into the back of the net, setting off a mad Italian celebration, it was the Great Thierry Henry, head down, unsuccessfully fighting back the tears, which was the scene we'll remember.

After the game, Henry was saying that FRANCE WAS THE VICTIM OF BAD LUCK and certainly there was plenty of that. Not long after an Eric Abidal hack on Luca Toni gave Italy the PK and the lead - and Abidal an early shower - Franck Ribery was carted off the pitch in a couple of baskets and it was difficult not to see that this just wasn't France's day.

But in a larger sense, hasn't this France side been living on borrowed time and reputation for a while now? And doesn't the fact that they went three games in this tournament and only managed one goal overall tell us most of what we need to know about whether they're really still the champions of old?

The term "End of an Era" is overused but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that "Les Bleu's" have seen their sun set.

It also seems likely that this was Henry's swan song FOR THE FRENCH TEAM after 102 caps, and the tears streaming down his face late yesterday, when it was clear that France was all done, spoke volumes about his heart, his love for the game and his frustration at being unable to will France to victory one last time.

The inexcusable booing from some (emphasize some) French fans at the Stade de France on the occasion of his 100th cap was shockingly churlish treatment for someone who has given them so much.

It's true of course that Henry was never the beloved national hero he thought he deserved to be. He was too aloof, too superior, too perfect to be the kind of player that fans take to their hearts.

To use a Gillette-inspired pairing, you can admire a Tiger Woods or a Roger Federer, cheer wildly at their incredible victories, but you don't fall in love with them.

When he was on his game, the results were breathtaking, and watching him reach down inside himself against Italy it often looked like he was sure he could find a way to win the game by himself if he had to.

But in the end, sport has a simple message: all things must pass. For Henry, the time has indeed come to move aside and let whoever the new coach is (since surely Raymond Domenech will be out momentarily) start to rebuild the French team around a new core of players.

Watching Thierry Henry walk off the field it was hard not to reflect on the men who were no longer walking alongside him: Desailly, Blanc, Leboef, Zidane, Pires, Thuram, Barthez and the rest.

And you had to wonder if he was thinking about them too.