The Republic of Ireland and their 25,000 travelling fans were left heartbroken as a controversial extra-time goal from William Gallas gave France a 2-1 aggregate win in their World Cup qualifying play-off second leg in Paris, leaving Irish World Cup dreams in pieces.
Robbie Keane's first-half strike took the play-off tie into extra-time but despite chances to win it, Ireland conceded the decisive goal after the referee failed to spot a handball by Thierry Henry in the build-up.
Knowing that only a win would be enough to secure safe passage to South Africa 2010, the Republic started brightly, controlling possession in the opening minutes. Talk of a defensive approach by manager Giovanni Trapattoni looked unfounded as wingers Damien Duff and Liam Lawrence continually bombed forward looking to deliver the ball into the box whenever the chance presented itself.
Ireland's impressive work-rate was clear to see as they closed-down their opponents while keeping their solid-looking formation.
The hosts struggled to find their feet in-front of an expectant home crowd who must have been anticipating a much easier first-half.
But it was Trapattoni's men who almost took the lead in the 24th minute. A cross from Duff eventually found its way to Lawrence who headed into the path of captain Robbie Keane but the Spurs front-man was denied by a brave block from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Kevin Doyle, Keane's hard-working strike partner was a constant thorn in the side of Gallas and he should have given his side the lead when Lawrence delivered a wicked cross from the right-hand side. Unfortunately for the 10,000 travelling fans behind the goal, the Wolves man glanced his header narrowly wide.
But just six minutes later the Irish fans were in dream land. A neat interchange between Duff and Kelvin Kilbane set the Fulham winger free down the left and he sent in a low cross for record goal-scorer Keane to slot neatly into the bottom corner. Cue scenes of jubilation among the Irish support, some were booking their plane tickets already.
Raymond Domenech's side improved a little towards the end of the half, piling on the pressure without creating any clear-cut chances, Richard Dunne and the rest of his defensive line exhibiting both composure and strength in equal measure.
The second period started more evenly than the first but the former World Champions appeared to have raised their intensity, a by-product of their under-pressure manager's half-time team talk.
Despite the improvement by 'Les Bleus' it was the Republic who almost sealed their place in FIFA's showpiece event next summer just fifteen minutes into the half. An innocuous looking through-ball found the impressive Duff one-on-one with Lloris, the man who once cost Chelsea £17 million looked a certainty to score but the Lyon keeper pulled off his second fantastic save of the game to keep his country in with a chance.
The hosts nearly regained the aggregate lead just seconds later. A long ball over the top of the Irish back-four found Henry but he was denied by a mixture of Shay Given and a heroic block from Dunne.
As the game started to become more stretched, France began to dominate possession, with Keane and his men relegated to the counter-attack. But against the run of play, it was Keane himself who was presented with a golden opportunity to seal the tie. Lawrence picked up the ball on the edge of the opposition area and slipped Keane in with a perfectly weighted pass. As Republic fans around the world rose to their feet, their hero skipped round the impressive Lloris but could not slip it into the empty net, the ball rolling out harmlessly for a goal-kick.
The 90 minutes finished in exciting fashion, the Irish defence holding strong with a number of key blocks and interceptions to deny the likes of Anelka and Henry while the influential Keane blasted over from distance after picking up a stray pass from Lassana Diarra.
Just as they had faded in the second-half on Saturday, the Republic looked visibly weary as extra-time got underway and Anelka almost made them pay with a low-range drive which whistled just inches past Given's right-hand post.
If Ireland were fortunate to see Anelka's effort go wide then the luck of the Irish was really on display just a few minutes later. Slipped in down the right-flank, Anelka found himself through on goal against Given. The Chelsea striker opted to try and go round Given but was sent tumbling by the Man City stopper. It looked for all the world like a penalty but the referee decided not to give it, Irish hearts slowly returning to their normal position having been previously lodged in firmly in their throats.
Unfortunately for the Irish, all their luck was up after the penalty that never was. A lofted free-kick from substitute Florent Malouda was headed on by the offside Sebastien Squillaci, the ball falling to Henry who clearly handled it before finding Gallas who headed home from just a yard out.
Ireland's players were understandably furious at the referee for failing to spot what was a clear hand-ball but all the remonstrating in the world was not going to change the decision. An attacking flurry was needed fast.
The Republic huffed and puffed for the remainder of extra-time, desperately trying to create a chance which would see them steal the coveted prize of a place at next summer's finals but they couldn't break down a stubborn French back-four.
Ireland deserved much more from this performance, they, not France, should be heading to South Africa but football can be a cruel game, and this, unfortunately for the Irish, was a perfect example of that.
- Joe Strange