The sun beats down upon a sea of blue and yellow. Its shimmering waves sway gently with the motion of raised flags, scarves and banners, rippling in anticipation amidst a chorus of Scottish and Brazilian voices. Painted faces look nervously up to the clear skies above, muttering quick hopeful prayers and licking dry lips, while stomachs fill with butterflies as the teams emerge onto the pitch.
Within every other corner of the globe, children are gleefully rushing home from school, parents are unashamedly skipping work, while a mixture of both are finally dragging themselves away from their Playstations and half-empty Panini sticker books. It’s time for the real thing: the greatest show on Earth is about to hear its opening whistle.
While the electric buzz inside the Stade de France certainly pushed maximum voltage limits, excitement for the 1998 World Cup had started building much earlier – thanks to a football, an airport, and one of the most exciting Brazilian sides in a generation.
The reigning champions arrived in France as comfortable pre-tournament favourites, boasting a star-studded cast which was even more impressive than the triumphant side of four years earlier. While Romário, the hero of that golden American summer, was tearfully forced out due to a niggling calf injury, the Seleção’s plane touched down with enough attacking threat to trigger airport security alarms.
This particular notion certainly wasn’t lost on Nike, who had recently engineered a controversial ten-year sponsorship deal worth around $160m. After gate-crashing the final of USA 94 with their iconic Tiempo boots, the Portland-based brand were desperate to commercialise the swashbuckling, carefree Samba style, with the resulting marketing campaigns keeping bleary-eyed children glued to their television screens, utterly transfixed.
It’s now hard to imagine this Brazilian side traversing through the French terminals without joyfully knocking a ball around, effortlessly evading airport security with feints, tricks and flicks. The infamous advert delivered a tantalising taste of what fans could expect from the rest of the summer, with the irresistible stepovers and swagger building stratospheric hype in the lead-up to the tournament’s opening game.
Despite some resilient defending, Scotland spent the majority of that 90 minutes chasing green and yellow shadows, with Brazil taking an early lead through the unlikely source of César Sampaio. The Canarinha then laid siege to Jim Leighton’s inviting goal, unleashing a dazzling display of their attacking Samba football and lighting eyes up all over the world, with a buck-toothed 21-year-old sitting at the heart of absolutely everything.
While it was the marauding, relentless running of Cafu which would ultimately provide the winner, the blurred feet, ghosting feints and raw power of the world’s best player captured the imaginations of all the millions watching. Ronaldo came into France 98 on the back of his debut season for Inter, where he’d netted 25 league goals and added Serie A Footballer of the Year to a cabinet which already included the Ballon d’Or.
After bamboozling the most stoic of Italian defences over the previous season, Ó Fenómeno lived up to his mantle by feinting, dummying and bursting his way past Colin Hendry and anyone else who happened to get too close, leaving them either dazed on the ground or grasping at wisps of smoke. His name wasn’t etched on the scoresheet that day but, along with the brash genius of Rivaldo, ran the Scottish defence ragged and gave the people exactly what they wanted: exhilarating entertainment.
The Seleção’s next game, a thumping 3-0 win over Morocco, saw Ronaldo open his account in the most emphatic fashion, ghosting in behind the hapless backline and thundering in a majestic half-volley from just outside the area. Refusing to be cowed by the aggressive attention he was receiving, particularly from Saïd Chiba, this was yet another virtuoso display which showed just why he was considered the best around. Ronaldo, the phenomenon, had arrived.
Further threat came from the grace of Leonardo, the pace of Bebeto and the dancing feet of Denílson, who had recently become the most expensive player on the planet, while the venomous strikes of Roberto Carlos presumably left goalkeepers in need of soothing hand cream. The likes of Dunga, Aldair and Cláudio Taffarel backed up this attacking ensemble with a real iron grit and steadiness, rounding off a team which looked every bit as fluid as the great Brazilian sides of the 70s.
Brutally tearing opponents apart to the tune of Mas Que Nada, Brazil were just one of many teams to impose their unique personality that summer, a fact which became increasingly evident as the group stage progressed. This was the first time the World Cup had been expanded to include 32 teams, leading to the most diverse competition to date and creating a tournament brimming with distinctive characters and styles.
The flair of Nigeria captured the hearts of neutrals all over the world, capped by a wondrous Sunday Oliseh strike to topple Spain, while Taribo West’s memorable lime green hair was only matched by a Romania side who had all gone completely blonde. Fans watched in disbelief as Paraguay’s José Chilavert rushed off his line to take every free-kick, scrambling back when they inevitably went awry, but it was a moment from Mexico’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco which really summed up the fun and exuberance of this World Cup.
Picking the ball up wide on the left, Blanco was immediately closed down by two South Koreans, both quietly confident they had the situation under control. Taking a few touches to bring the ball under his bewitching spell, the Mexican forward trapped the ball between both feet and hopped straight past both bewildered defenders, vanishing into thin air as if this was a classic episode of Scooby-Doo, not the biggest stage of all.
This sense of ingenious, inventive fun contrasted entirely with the suffocating hostility surrounding Iran and the USA, a match played upon a hotbed of bubbling political tension and mutual dislike. As the TV cameras shielded us from terrorist protests in the stands, the Iranians claimed one of the most memorable victories in their history, surrounded by a wall of riot police charged with preventing the inevitable political protests.
Such a politically-charged encounter hadn’t been seen at a World Cup since 1986, when England lost to Diego Maradona’s Argentina, but a player stepping up to exorcise past demons is a far more common feature of these competitions. Roberto Baggio was the creative outlet at the heart of a sterile, uninspired Azzurri midfield, and enjoyed his moment of catharsis after scoring from the spot against both Chile and France, expelling the spirits which had haunted him for the past four years – although Italy would eventually exit on penalties for the third time in a row.
South Africa, Japan, Jamaica and Croatia were all taking part in the tournament for the very first time, with each side making an instant impact with their outstanding, colourful kits. In a strange twist of fate, three of these teams were pitted against each other in Group H, alongside a dangerous Argentina side led by the trickery of Ariel Ortega and the ruthless talents of Gabriel Batistuta. Pushed onward by a lethal finisher of their own, it would be the checked shirts of Croatia and Davor Šuker, rather than the flames of Japan, who joined the South Americans in the next round.
While Šuker would ultimately go on to clinch the tournament’s Golden Boot, bulging the net on six occasions, that cloudless summer saw dangerous, blood-thirsty goalscorers stalking the entire French mainland, terrorising any defender to stand in their wake. Christian Vieri, Oliver Bierhoff and Marcelo Salas were amongst the most feared predators, while the quieter grace of Dennis Bergkamp spear-headed an exhilarating Netherlands side.
Even Spain, the biggest scalp to be taken at the group stage, unleashed the young talents of Fernando Morientes and Raúl upon the world, while England boasted their own electrifying youngster in an 18-year-old Michael Owen, bouncing into this World Cup to the memorable sounds of Fat Les. Curling, finessed finishes were followed by fizzing drives and sumptuous, delicate chips, with defences begging for mercy as they were breached a record 171 times.
Despite packing their own young guns in Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, it was hosts France who were severely lacking in artillery. Rotating between their promising youngsters, Christophe Dugarry and Newcastle’s hapless Stéphane Guivarc’h, boss Aimé Jacquet instead based his team around a solid defensive unit, keeping them organised enough to repel the serious attacking threat which was currently running riot across their homeland.
Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc formed an impenetrable barrier at the back, with the latter constantly kissing the glistening head of Fabien Barthez for added luck. Flanked by the outstanding full-back pairing of Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu, and supported by the reliable Frank Leboeuf, the French backline wouldn’t be breached from open play until the semi-final, when the unstoppable Šuker was given far too much space to poke the ball home.
Aside from a Michael Laudrup penalty – against a terrific Danish side – this was the only time the French resistance would falter against these irresistible attacking forces. Reinforced by the patrolling Didier Deschamps, the French backline rebuffed everything that came their way, with the creative talents of Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff providing a substantial threat at the other end. Considered an outside bet at the start of the tournament, France eased through the group stage before again defending stubbornly against Paraguay; Laurent Blanc scoring the first-ever Golden Goal to a chorus of cheers, shouts and a collective sigh of relief.
After failing to qualify for the last two World Cups, France suddenly found themselves in the quarter-finals, and the nationwide feeling of bland indifference had been replaced by a burgeoning, uncontrollable desire for Jacquet’s men to go all the way. Featuring players with roots in Algeria, Senegal and other parts of the African continent, the national side had quickly come to symbolise a more harmonious, multi-cultural French society – at least for the immediate future.
Les Bleus’ next opponents, however, posed a completely different kind of challenge, and were no strangers to the art of defending themselves. Exposed against the devastating Chilean partnership of Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano, a crumbling Italian wall had since refortified itself, holding firm against a dangerous Tore André Flo-inspired Norway to edge through the previous round. Desailly, Blanc and Thuram would line up against Cannavaro, Costacurta and Maldini, with the 0-0 scoreline always feeling like something of an inevitability.
While France ultimately progressed on penalties and sent the nation into delirium, it was the seductive attacking football of the other knockout ties which kids were emulating on the playground. They wanted to be Ronaldo or Rivaldo, producing step-over after step-over as they dismantled Chile; or perhaps one of the dazzling Laudrup brothers, breaking Nigerian hearts as the Danes roared into the quarter-finals with ruthless efficiency.
Bergkamp, Šuker and Klinsmann were all on target in the round of 16, but there was one man, one goal in particular, that truly lit the touch paper and ignited our imaginations. With the scores level after a penalty apiece, Owen picked up the ball just past the halfway line, taking it in his stride and ripping through the heart of Argentina’s defence in a flash. Politely ignoring the onrushing Paul Scholes, Liverpool’s latest superstar slalomed away from Roberto Ayala before crashing the ball into the top corner.
The England bench were on their feet, Paul Merson and Teddy Sheringham sporting particularly vivid expressions of awe and disbelief, as Owen veered away before being mobbed by his teammates. One of England’s other young superstars would prove to be the villain, and the inevitable scapegoat, of that pulsating, thrilling defeat, but that didn’t stop Owen from lighting eyes up around the world and sparking the tournament into life.
The next morning, children on every English playground, and many across the world, were attempting to recreate that memorable moment, but just a few days later they’d witness something completely impossible to emulate. Argentina and Ayala were once again the victims, and there was almost nothing they could do as Frank de Boer’s speculative 60-yard pass arched over their heads and came under the enchanting spell of Bergkamp.
The ensuing Dutch wizardry not only caused the Stade Vélodrome to burst into a chaotic, uncontrollable eruption of orange, but also gave us one of the most memorable pieces of commentary football has ever seen. Those three magical touches brought a close to yet another enthralling, fiery encounter between two attacking sides, rife with controversy as both ended the game a man light – Ortega famously sent off for head-butting Edwin van der Sar late on.
Bergkamp’s majestic intervention set up an even more tantalising battle against Brazil in the semi-final, who had just played out a terrific 90 minutes of their own against an incredibly dangerous Denmark. While the deadly bite of Rivaldo and Bebeto had edged them to a 3-2 victory, Danish goals from Martin Jørgensen and Brian Laudrup had exposed glaring weaknesses at the back; weaknesses which Bergkamp and Oranje could surely exploit.
Even so, the odds remained firmly stacked in the Seleção’s favour, particularly since they were the only side left in the competition who had actually won it before. This had been a summer of shock results and inspiring underdog stories, all to a backdrop of flawless weather, dancing crowds and blaring trumpets. But none of these upsets had been greater than Croatia’s bruising, blood-thirsty demolition of Germany at the Stade de Gerland.
The World Cup debutants wanted revenge after their belligerent encounter with Die Mannschaft at Euro 96, and neither side wasted any time in picking up exactly where they’d left off, flying into reckless challenges and making the referee more than familiar with his notebook. It was only a matter of time until the cards turned from yellow to red, however, and it was Germany’s Christian Wörns sent trudging down the tunnel just before the interval.
After Robert Jarni’s fizzing left-footed drive, Croatia seized their advantage and cantered to a tremendous 3-0 victory, bringing an end to this golden era of German football and promptly setting their sights on silencing the home nation. Jacquet, his players and the on-looking spectators were more than aware of the dangers posed by the Croats, stirring up an atmosphere bristling with tension and hesitant expectation, the only people not chewing their fingernails too busy hiding behind their hands instead.
Šuker’s strike immediately after half-time hushed the Stade de France into a deafening silence. As he veered away with both arms aloft, Barthez slowly scooped the ball out of his goal and heads turned towards the top end of the pitch. Now that checked red and white flags waved with renewed vigour, many were questioning where the goals would come from to save Les Bleus, haunted by the number of wasted chances they’d already endured that summer.
They would have their answer in just over a minute, and it was perhaps the unlikeliest one of all. Racing up the field like a man possessed, Thuram picked Zvonimir Boban’s pocket on the edge of the area, played a quick one-two with Djorkaeff, and poked the ball past an on-rushing Dražen Ladić. Following 20 minutes of testing, teasing jabs, Thuram came surging forward yet again, sweeping the ball into the bottom corner with a curling left-footed strike and sending his homeland into raptures.
An extremely controversial red card for Blanc set up a nervy finish, but Thuram’s legendary performance ensured France would have to endure such nail-biting tension yet again just a few days later, this time against a Brazilian side who had just broken Dutch hearts on penalties. The artists in yellow and orange had painted their own glorious canvas the day before, but Taffarel would ultimately provide the decisive stroke of the brush, denying both Ronald de Boer and Phillip Cocu to repeat his heroics of four years earlier.
The competition would finish as it started, with Parisian streets flooded by a sea of blue and yellow, and Brazil once again comfortable favourites to claim the victory. The languid grace of Zidane would go up against the raw lethal power of Ronaldo, a stoic French defence against the irresistible Brazilian firepower, the home nation against the holders; that evening in Saint-Denis had the makings of a true classic.
While the sun continued to blare down from above, this time the gorgeous weather would be obscured by the gloomy shadow of controversy. Fans clamouring into their seats, children watching at home, TV pundits, players, match officials: nobody could believe that Ronaldo, the greatest player on the planet, the man hoping to clinch the Golden Boot, wasn’t included in Brazil’s starting line-up. Instead, Fiorentina’s Edmundo would be leading the attack.
To this day, nobody really knows what happened on that fateful afternoon, and conspiracy theories involving Nike’s commercial interests continue to abound. Many accounts agree that Brazil’s talisman was struggling with the pressure and experienced some kind of seizure in their hotel before the game, but the important thing is that something convinced Mário Zagallo to reinstate Ronaldo into his starting XI at the last minute.
With whispered rumours floating around the Stade de France, Brazil stepped onto the pitch in their customary fashion of holding hands but, with head bowed and shoulders slumped, the world’s best player bore the appearance of a man being dragged somewhere he badly didn’t want to be. After Said Belqola’s opening whistle, it became apparent that he wasn’t the only one to be affected by the shocking events in that hotel room.
There wasn’t a hint of the fluid, exuberant football Brazil had flaunted throughout the rest of the summer, instead looking completely disorganised and out of touch with one another, constantly giving possession away with erratic, wayward passes and eventually arguing amongst themselves. Ronaldo was a mere shadow of his usual self, marshalled effortlessly by Desailly and Leboeuf as France took complete control of the game.
Brazil’s utter capitulation and disorganisation allowed Zidane to twice head home from a corner, completely losing his marker on both occasions to set up the most one-sided World Cup final in recent memory. After getting sent off for a petulant stamp against Saudi Arabia, Zizou, the greatest midfielder on the planet, had redeemed himself in the most spectacular fashion, exuding a sense of calm confidence which transmitted to the rest of his teammates.
Even when Desailly was sent off for a reckless challenge in the second half, the excellent French backline never looked like getting breached. The joyous, delirious crowd were cheering every pass, unleashing Mexican waves and dancing jubilantly in their seats, making the world shake as Emmanuel Petit raced free to slot home a third. Nike Mercurials slung around his neck for the cameras, a dazed Ronaldo could only watch as Deschamps lifted the golden trophy, but his own moment of redemption would come soon enough.
It was a sea of blue, white and red which soaked the streets of Paris that night, as this fantastic tournament ended the only way it could: with the underdogs coming out on top. The City of Lights was lit up like never before, with fans of all backgrounds, religions and cultures coming together to celebrate joyfully on the cobblestones, waving flags, singing songs and blaring horns beneath the sparkling moonlight.
France 98 had all the drama, controversy and excitement which makes the World Cup so special, with more than a fair dose of scandal thrown in for good measure. It didn’t just have an enormous impact on French football and society, but also sent tremors out across the rest of the world and inspired a generation to fall in love with this beautiful game.
By Ben Hyde @henbyde