THE first phase of the World Cup ended with hosts France making the hearts of the nation beat considerably faster with the realistic hope that they can win the great prize for the first time in their history. A further fillip for France has been the successful implementation of a first round of 32 teams, the largest for any World Cup. There were doubts expressed about just how well this could work with three games on some days and teams being asked to travel to different venues for their first-round matches. It has worked well, which is a relief to FIFA, and the courteous efficiency shown by the French organisers also reflects credit on them. But, of course, we're here for the football and there have been highs and lows - excluding the events in Marseille and Lens involving hooligans from both England and Germany. Nigeria went from the sublime to the fraudulent in 10 days and plenty of uncommitted observers will be cheering for Denmark when the two teams meet at the Stade de France tonight. Nigeria's superb performance against Spain in their first game in Nantes was obliterated by their woeful, totally uncommitted effort against Paraguay which brought Spain's World Cup foray to an early end. Of course, Spain have really only themselves to blame. They failed to take more than a point off a limited Paraguay and enough has been said about goalkeeper-skipper Andoni Zubizaretta's blunder against Nigeria. What truly irks those seeking the great matches that make a World Cup is being denied, through this combination of events, a second-round meeting between France and Spain. I was in a restaurant in the old town of Vienne on the banks of the Rhone when Nigeria surrendered to Paraguay and the loudest cheers, not unnaturally, came from the French. A game between France and Spain as well as one between Germany and Holland - partially denied by a self-satisfied Yugoslavia against America - would have lifted this World Cup enormously. The second phase, rather sadly, does not really have the pairings that totally excite. As a result, the selfish among us may have to wait until the quarter-finals for the kind of superlative action that makes a World Cup truly memorable. The French nation is beginning to hope that Les Bleus can go all the way and win on July 12 at the Stade de France. Having watched them fail in 1982 and 1986 when they had the awesome talents of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse among others available, I would be among the first to cheer for France. Ironically, both those great French teams were let down by striking power and that was the huge doubt and question mark hovering over Aime Jacquet's team before this tournament began on June 10. But now we have a situation where the French scored nine goals - more than anyone else - in the first phase and that with Christophe Dugarry, who had sent them on the way in the opening game, ruled out of action for the last game and most of the second match against Saudi Arabia. That may have been something of a disguised blessing, in my opinion anyway, as Dugarry has rarely struck me as a top-quality striker. However, his sudden absence paved the way for the inclusion of David Trezeguet, the excellent young Monaco forward, and his pairing with the impressive Thierry Henry has left Jacquet with what could be the final part of the footballing jigsaw that makes a World Cup-winning team. No one who has seen them over the past three years has doubted that, behind the front line, France are the match of any team and the sheer depth of talent in midfield makes selecting the team the biggest problem. The absence of Zinedine Zidane is not going to matter too much here this afternoon against Paraguay and, were he any other player, he might well be fighting for his place in this supremely talented midfield. There has been a greater South American influence on this World Cup than was probably expected. Argentina and Brazil were confidently expected to go through to the second round and the former have begun to really shake down into a side that, if they leave aside the histrionics and concentrate on the football, could go very close to winning. Brazil were not impressive against Scotland but stepped up a gear to confirm qualification for the second round by beating Morocco convincingly. They then played with probably less than their usual zest in losing, on a highly controversial penalty, to Norway. Whatever the outcome, it is difficult to see this Brazil side going down in history as one of their great teams. At times they have looked better than the 1994 World Cup-winning model but, churlish or ridiculous as it may sound, all they did was win it. They very rarely truly excited. The Scots made their ritual first-round exit and did so tamely - or even shamefully - while the departure of also-rans Jamaica, South Africa and Tunisia were all very predictable. The Asian challenge failed although South Korea recovered pride and did everyone a favour by drawing with Belgium and ensuring - although it ultimately wasn't required - that the effervescent Mexicans rather than the prosaic, laboured Belgians would be with us for a little bit longer. Japan found it difficult to score but must have been bitterly disappointed that they could not gain something out of their final game against Jamaica with the 2-1 defeat summing up their first World Cup. France have again shown how important it is for a successful World Cup to have the host nation perform well. It lifts the country and adds everyday excitement to the tournament as people in all walks of life - and many with only the most minimal interest in the game - get caught up in it all. The most obvious recent example was Euro 96 which really united England and the tournament unquestionably dipped when the hosts were eliminated. But it looked a decidedly disunited England against Romania after their routine opening match against Tunisia, considered weakest of the African contenders although their final draw with Romania restored pride. England took two of the chances that came their way in Lens in the final group game against a Colombian side that simply looked incapable of scoring. It was a vital win but not one that underwrote England's chances for ultimate glory. They will find the Argentinians an interesting assignment in Toulouse in one of the more attractive second-round encounters. It would be almost possible to write the same preview of Germany's chances in virtually every World Cup. Only the names change - and sometimes, not even those. We have had Lothar Matthaus on for two games to create a World Cup record and Germany, for whom Jurgen Klinsmann has been impressive, have freshly demonstrated all the old resilience and strengths that have served them so well. Frankly, I do not think they can win it but I fear for the admirable Mexicans whose adventurous, endearing spirit may find the formidable Germans a little too tough. Almost inevitably, every World Cup produces a player who captures the imagination and does great deeds for his country. We haven't seen one who yet totally fills the bill but my own tip is French striker Henry. Despite the splendid talent throughout the French team, it may yet be the 21-year-old striker who plays the most significant role in helping the host nation win the World Cup. Henry, considered in the same mould as Arsenal's Nicholas Anelka and from the same French school of excellence that has also produced Zidane and Bixente Lizarazu from the current team, has come into his own in the first phase and seems to have the composure and maturity to make up for his lack of experience. Henry scores goals and makes them, as vital a consideration as it is possible to get and his developing link with Trezeguet augurs well. It will be ironic if France meet Argentina - a final pairing becoming an increasingly popular tip - as Trezeguet has, or had, dual nationality. His Argentinian-born father took the family back to South America when Trezeguet was very young and he tried out for several major Argentinian teams. But he was overlooked for selection by the Argentinian youth team at the same time as the family returned to France. The rest, as they say, is history but it could well be to Argentina's cost that they did not select him when they had the chance. Gabriel Batistuta, or 'Batigol', as his Fiorentina fans have long called him, has been on target and will be so again. As expected, he has flourished in this World Cup where, by and large, there has not been the goal famine - not least because of the protection now being given to strikers. Even though we may have been robbed of matches that had that look of sure-fire excitement about them, we are now through to the knockout phase. It is difficult to be entirely sure how much any of the recognised major teams are skilfully camouflaging in the first phase where the round-robin system allows for manipulation. But now it comes down to just one team advancing and this is where it becomes no holds barred. There was a certain predictability about the first round with clearly Spain's departure the major shock. Other than that, the World Cup to date has largely run to form. When the much shorter second-round phase is out of the way, we should be left with the recognised giants of world football in place for the quarter- and semi-final stages. Batistuta has an uncanny eye for goal and if England play with three men at the back in their Saint-Etienne second-round game, they are in for trouble. One other player who has excelled in the first phase and is already the centre of massive transfer talk is Argentinian midfielder Juan Veron. The tall, sparse figure can dominate in midfield and - the mark of a top player - simply does not waste the ball. He has not received the accolades handed out to Batistuta and the inventive, tricky Ariel Ortega but he is the powerhouse behind the attack. The 32-team innovation for the 16th World Cup cannot, in hindsight, be criticised. It has worked and it has given teams from lesser nations their brief moment in the spotlight. It may also help spread the footballing gospel although, with a certain inevitability, we are going to be left with the best.