OPINION | Remembering France 1998 – the greatest World Cup of all time?

What makes a World Cup truly memorable? For some it’s the players, the teams, a moment or a goal. For others they might favour a tournament because of the host, the winner or it might be something even more specific such as the timing of the tournament or the completing of a sticker album.

The view on the best World Cup of all time is of course fairly subjective however for me, it is the 1998 tournament, held in and of course won by France, which takes the crown. As we reach 20 years since that joyful summer, I can still look back and remember each match, each goal and each wonderful Barry Davies line on commentary clearly and fondly.

Focusing on the hosts themselves, Les Bleus were coming into their own tournament under some pressure. Having infamously missed out on qualification for USA 1994, via that David Ginola incident under Gérard Houllier, his assistant Aime Jacquet was handed the responsibility to turn around the team’s fortunes and look to regain favour with the French public who had become somewhat disillusioned with their national team. A fairly youthful squad went into the 1996 European Championships with little expectation to do well but with young, exciting players such as Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Christian Karembeu, they surprised many by making it all the way to the semi-finals, only to narrowly lose on penalties to the Czech Republic with Reynald Pedros the unfortunate player to miss the decisive spot kick.

With France hosting the next World Cup, the intervening years prior to the start of the tournament, were a series of friendly games. In the months leading up to the tournament, Jacquet’s side limped to wins over Finland and Belgium, mustering draws with Norway and Sweden whilst facing defeats by Russia and Morocco. Les Bleus were therefore hardly flowing with confidence going into their home tournament.

Festivities finally got underway on 10 June 1998 with the opening ceremony at the newly built Stade de France. This was followed by the first game with 1994 winners Brazil facing off against Scotland. Cesar Sampaio was the player to net the first goal with a near post header. The Scots rallied well and equalised just before the break with Monaco midfielder John Collins scoring from the penalty spot. Unfortunately for Craig Brown’s side, a Tom Boyd own goal gifted the win for the pre-tournament favourites.

In Group B, a Marcelo Salas inspired Chile sprang something of a surprise as they held 1994 runners up Italy to a 2-2 draw with Roberto Baggio banishing the memories of his crucial missed spot kick in that final by converting a penalty which saved a point. Cameroon defender Pierre Njanka scored the tournament’s first standout goal as he ran from his own half, beating several Austrian defenders before finishing coolly into the top corner as his side drew with Austria.

France got off to a comfortable if not entirely spectacular start as they defeated South Africa 3-0 with goals from Christophe Dugarry and Thierry Henry, his first for his country, falling either side of a Pierre Issa own goal. Spain and Nigeria played out one of the tournaments best games as an inspired Super Eagles side shocked Spain, with the likes of Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique and Raul in their ranks, as they came from 2-1 down to claim a 3-2 win. Midfielder Sunday Oliseh with a wonderful, thunderbolt of a half volley from at least 30 yards, his goal and celebration proving a real memorable moment.

A typically efficient German performance saw them claim a 2-0 win over the USA, as Berti Vogts’ side kicked off their attempt to add World Cup success to their European Championship win two years earlier. Glenn Hoddle’s England side, notably without Paul Gascoigne, who after a terrific outing at Euro 1996 had fallen out of favour, put in a similar steady but not sparkling effort as they claimed a win over Tunisia by the same score line under the sweltering mid-afternoon sun in Marseille. Paul Scholes lovely late curling effort proving the highlight.

The final game in the first round of group fixtures saw debutants Jamaica play Croatia, playing in the World Cup as an independent state for the first time. The Reggae Boys were dealt a harsh lesson as they lost 3-1 but defeat against this Croatian side would go on to prove no disappointment, as other teams would attest to later in the tournament. Wimbledon midfielder Robbie Earle would claim the honour of scoring Jamaica’s first goal at the World Cup.

In the second round of group games, Brazil started to click into gear as their front three in Ronaldo, Bebeto and Rivaldo were all on the scoresheet in a win over Morocco. Italy recovered from their below standard outing against Chile as they beat Cameroon 3-0 with Christian Vieri netting a brace. There was also a brace from Henry in France’s next game as they beat Saudi Arabia 4-0 which included goals from David Trezeguet and Bixente Lizarazu as well. Perhaps the bigger storyline however was the sending off of Zidane for a stamp, which would see the Juventus midfielder suspended for the next two games.

After a disappointing goalless draw with Belgium in their opening game, the Netherlands announced their arrival with a 5-0 demolition of South Korea and in doing so threw their hat into the ring as far as potential tournament winners went. All eyes were on the USA v Iran game held in Lyon with so much political tension between the two countries, there were worries it could spill onto the pitch. In the end though the game was played in good spirits with the Iranians emerging victors.

Romania against England proved notable for two key incidents. The first being the emergence of 18-year-old Michael Owen who, after coming off the bench, netted his first tournament goal for his country which drew them level. Unfortunately for Glenn Hoddle’s side they conceded in injury time to a Dan Petrescu goal, following some hesitancy between David Seaman and Graeme Le Saux. It was an important loss for England as finishing runners up in their group would almost certainly mean facing Argentina in the round of 16. The Argentinians were starting to look imperious as they put five passed Jamaica including a hat-trick from Gabriel Batistuta.

The final round of group games saw an already qualified Brazil surprisingly lose late on to Norway, a result which meant Morocco’s 3-0 victory over Scotland accounted for nothing. Italy secured qualification from group B thanks to a narrow win over Austria, with Chile joining them thanks to their third consecutive draw. France had already qualified from group C but goals from Youri Djorkaeff and Emmanuel Petit ensured it was three wins from three as they defeated Denmark 2-1. Spain struggled to recover from their opening defeat to Nigeria as draws against Paraguay and then Bulgaria meant they failed to progress. It was Paraguay with their free kick taking goalkeeper Jose Chilavert who joined Nigeria in qualifying for the round of 16.

The Dutch conceded a 95th minute equaliser against Mexico as they both progressed from group E. Oliver Bierhoff and Jurgen Klinsmann scored for Germany in their win over Iran as they emerged as group winners ahead of Yugoslavia. England were reliant upon Tunisia beating Romania if they were to stand any chance of finishing top of their group and in turn avoid Argentina in the next round.

Whilst goals from Darren Anderton and a trademark David Beckham freekick gave them the win over Colombia, Romania gained the point they needed in their game to finish top. Rounding off the group fixtures. Argentina joined France as the only other team with a 100% win record as they beat Croatia 1-0. Jamaica finished their debut tournament on a happier note as they beat Japan 2-1.

The round of 16 threw up some intriguing fixtures but it was the Argentina against England match up which drew much of the attention. The first two fixtures saw Italy progress thanks to a narrow one goal win over Norway, Christian Vieri netting his fifth of the tournament. Whilst Brazil were up against fellow South American side Chile however showed no mercy as braces from both Cesar Sampaio and Ronaldo gave them a very comfortable 4-1 win.

Tournament hosts France faced Paraguay in Lens. The game was by no means a classic and after 90 minutes it finished goalless. This meant extra time and the prospect of the first ever World Cup golden goal. Defender Laurent Blanc duly obliged netting late in the first period of extra time to secure progression for the French and ensuring his name would be forever noted in the history books. Denmark put in a strong performance as they ended the Nigerian dream in a 4-1 win.

Both Germany and the Netherlands had to rely on very late goals to see them through as they both won 2-1 over Mexico and Yugoslavia respectively. Davor Suker netted a first half injury time penalty in what proved to be the only goal of the game in Croatia’s win over Romania.

The final game of the round of 16 was that highly anticipated Argentina versus England game. This was the first time these two nations had faced each other in tournament football since their 1986 quarter final in Mexico and those Diego Maradona goals. The game in Saint-Etienne did not disappoint. The two sides traded early penalties through Batistuta and Alan Shearer before a true World Cup moment played out.

Collecting a David Beckham pass in the centre circle, Michael Owen ran at the Argentinian defence, beat one man, beat a second and just as everyone thought he had taken the ball too wide, he almost pushed Scholes out of the way as he fired in a brilliant shot into the far top corner. A wonderful goal that really did announce the arrival of a top talent on the world stage. England looked set to go into the break ahead however in first half injury time a superbly worked free kick freed up Javier Zanetti to smash in an equaliser.

A breathless first half was followed by a nervy second period which began in infamous fashion. After going down under a challenge, Beckham kicked out at Argentinian captain Diego Simeone. Whilst Simeone made something of a meal out of it, referee Kim Milton Nielsen was left with little choice but to send off the Manchester United midfielder.

The images of Beckham trudging off the field, untucking his shirt will go down as one of those unforgettable World Cup moments and provided English fans with their seemingly required post tournament hate figure. The controversy was not over though as with extra time looming, Sol Campbell looked to have won it for England as he headed in late on from a corner.

As the players wheeled away in celebration, it was the England bench who had to point out that the goal had been harshly ruled out for a foul by Shearer on goalkeeper Carlos Roa and that the Argentinians were launching a counter attack. After a dramatic and draining 90 minutes and a nervy period of extra time, the game went to penalties. Whilst both Hernan Crespo and Paul Ince missed early on, it was David Batty who unfortunately joined the likes of Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate on the list of renowned penalty misses, as he stepped up and saw his effort saved. Once again, England had exited a major tournament in the cruellest way possible.

After a few days rest, to allow players and spectators alike to catch their breath, the quarter finals got underway with a fairly drab affair between France and Italy. After 120 minutes of goalless football, it was left to a penalty shootout to decide who the first semi-finalist would be. Lizarazu and Demetrio Albertini missed consecutive penalties and after Blanc had converted the fifth spot kick for France, Luigi Di Biagio saw his effort cannon off the crossbar. Despite not quite hitting their peak yet, France had made it through to the semi-finals.

A Rivaldo double proved crucial as Brazil also made it through to the final four as they beat Denmark 3-2. The action then moved to Marseille where two heavyweights in the Netherlands and Argentina faced off. It was yet another game that provided drama and another truly magical World Cup moment. Patrick Kluivert and Claudio Lopez traded early goals before Dutch defender Arthur Numan picked up a second yellow card and was sent off midway through the second half. As the end of the game approached, a needless head-butt from Ariel Ortega on Dutch goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar, no mean feat for men of their respective heights, saw him pick up a red card to make it 10 men apiece.

With seconds remaining, Dutch captain Frank de Boer launched a hopeful ball forward towards Dennis Bergkamp. In one magical move, the Arsenal forward controlled the high ball from over his head and cut inside his man before bending an outside of the boot shot into the far top corner. It was a goal to rival any scored at the World Cup both in terms of its quality and its timing. The Dutch celebrated wildly and whilst the commentary from Barry Davies works perfectly “oh that’s brilliant, oh that’s wonderful!”, it is the Dutch television commentary which summed up a nation’s reaction to that goal; “Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp!”

The last of the quarter finals saw perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament as outsiders Croatia made incredibly easy work of European Champions Germany, as they swept passed them with ease in a 3-0 win with goals from Robert Jarni, Goran Vlaovic and Suker once again. A very disappointing exit for the Germans who would use this and their failure at Euro 2000 to launch their successful restructuring programme.

The semi-final line up saw Brazil take on the Netherlands whilst France went up against the tournaments surprise package in Croatia. The former went the distance as a late Kluivert goal equalised for the Dutch after Ronaldo’s opener early in the second half. With no golden goal in extra time, the match went to penalties with Guus Hiddink’s side the ones to go home disappointed as both Phillip Cocu and Ronald de Boer missed their spot kicks to see Brazil into the final.

With the mood across the country changing and the fans now starting to believe that their team could actually achieve glory on their home turf, there was an expectant mood ahead of France’s semi-final against Croatia. Whilst the Croatians had been impressive against Germany, the feeling was that surely this was a game too far. From kick off however it became obvious that Croatia were in no mood to roll over for the hosts. After a goalless first half, France were shaken to the core early in the second period as Suker pounced on a mistake in the French defence to open the scoring. It would have been easy for Jacquet’s side to remain stunned but to his and their credit, they responded in the best possible manner.

Lilian Thuram had been part of what had been for the majority of the tournament, a rock-solid defence. He was though not known for his goal scoring abilities and in his 38 caps to that point, had yet to score for France. It was therefore as good a time as any to break that duck and only moments after Suker’s opener, Thuram found himself free in the Croatian box, after being found via a lovely flick from Djorkaeff. The defender finished incredibly calmly to bring France level. Unbelievably, midway through the second half, Thuram was at it again, this time curling in a superb effort from the edge of the area with his weaker left foot. His celebration, on his knees with his hand to his face as though contemplating what had just happened was a picture and from then on in, a new hero was born.

France held on to that lead, although did see defender Laurent Blanc sent off late on as Slaven Bilic pathetically went to ground under the slightest push. Bilic’s playacting resulted in Blanc, seen as one of the real leaders of team and a key component of the impressive French defence, having to miss the World Cup final played in his home country, a devastating blow for such a hugely influential player; the images of his pre-match kiss on Fabien Barthez’ head proving such an enduring image of the tournament.

The third place play off between the Netherlands and Croatia proved of little significance except that with a 2-1 win, the Croatians claimed a very impressive third place finish in their debut World Cup. Davor Suker netted his sixth goal of the tournament to ensure he at least claimed the golden boot.

It was the dream scenario for the French in a way with their team in the final up against the holders. Joy filled the stands, filled the cities and with that came increased expectation; they had made it this far, why not now go on and win the whole thing. It shouldn’t though have been forgotten just who they were facing. In Brazil they were up against the likes of Ronaldo, at his very best, Rivaldo and Bebeto were who had also freely scored throughout the tournament and with full backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos, it was going to need a herculean effort from Jacquet’s men.

France were aided by pre-match confusion amongst the Brazilian ranks. With not long until kick off, rumours began to spread that Ronaldo was not going to be included in the Brazil starting line-up. The subsequent team-sheets issued around then went on to confirm that was the case. With Ronaldo seen as the biggest name in the Brazilian team, this was obviously met with great concern and curiosity. Eventually it emerged, via several conspiracy theories, that the striker had suffered some kind of convulsion the night before the game. Developments took another twist though when only 45 minutes before kick-off, it was announced that he actually was going to start. This was not the kind of pre-game preparation Brazil coach Mario Zagallo would have wanted.

From kick off it seemed clear that Ronaldo was not 100%, his touch was off, his runs weren’t timed well, he was a shadow of the player we had seen throughout the tournament so far. A collision with Fabien Barthez in the first half not helping him regain his form or focus. France looked to take advantage of this hesitancy in the Brazilian side and midway through the first half they took the lead. Zinedine Zidane headed in a corner from Emmanuel Petit. Zidane scored his and France’s second in first half injury with another header from a corner, this time swung in by Djorkaeff.

A 2-0 lead at half time and France were in dreamland and whilst concentration levels had to be kept up, one hand was already on the trophy. Despite the French taking their foot off the gas in the second half, Brazil rarely looked capable of getting themselves back into the game, even when Marcel Desailly, playing in place of the suspended Blanc, was sent off for a second yellow just after the hour mark. With time running out Brazil saw a corner wasted before France, through Christophe Dugarry, Patrick Vieira and finally Petit put the icing on the cake with a sweeping counter attack goal scored by the latter also France’s 1000th goal in their history.

With that the game was up and France were finally proclaimed champions of the World. The roar inside the Stade de France as captain Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy was almost drowned out by the noise from the Champs-Elysees where around a million French fans were celebrating; the sight of the Arc de Triomphe illuminated with the score line and the pictures of the victorious French team was a sight to behold.

That World Cup win signalled a golden period for French football as they went on to add European Championship glory in 2000. The win also announced the arrival of a number of players as world class talents, none more so than hero of the final Zidane who went on to win the Ballon d’Or that year.

To take this back to the introduction, there are indeed so many factors that may make a World Cup live long in the memory. This for me had it all; fantastic goals (Owen, Bergkamp, Oliseh), stand out matches (England v Argentina, France v Croatia), memorable moments (Thuram’s goals, Beckham’s red card) and a well-deserved winner. For the BBC coverage to finish with the great Des Lynam reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” over footage from the tournament before being played out by “Pavane” written by French composer Gabriel Faure was the perfect end to a perfect tournament. It will take something special to ever top France 1998.



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