The World Cup Calendar, July 12th. The French Football Revolution

One of the purest football tournaments in recent memory culminated in the Stade de France stadium, Saint-Denis, in July 1998. Both France and Brazil had coursed their way through the tournament with ease, stopping all who got in their way, both sides with justifiable reasons to believe that they would win the World Cup. Brazil were four time world champions going in to the finals, while Les Bleus had a point to prove. They had failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994, and had qualified automatically as a result of playing host to the competition. They had revamped their football culture over the past decade on a mission to become the superpower that they ought to be. France have a notorious reputation in history for waving the white flag, but there was absolutely no surrender by Aime Jacquet’s team in this final.

Over a decade before social media became mainstream, the football community was left shocked and confused at the news that the tournaments star attraction, Ronaldo, was out of the line up. He had taken an uncomfortable fall in the previous days mid-game, and looked to be in some distress, though it hardly looked like a tournament ending injury. The fans were confused tenfold when Ronaldo was reinstated to the starting line up with under an hour until kick off. It had become obvious that he was going to play the match, though his initial omission was baffling. There are more cynical views of what happened, with some people suggesting that Nike pressured the striker into playing despite a “fit” in the build up to the game. He decided to play, whatever the reason, and he certainly didn’t play his greatest game of the tournament.

France certainly hit the ground running in the final. Zinedine Zidane jinked past Junior Baiano before slotting the ball between the legs of Aldair. The nutmeg found Stephane Guivarc’h. He took a heavy touch and was bowled over by Baiano, legally. It was a stroke of luck for Brazil, something that would not occur often during this match.

France’s bright start continued by way of an attacking free kick. Zidane, the lynchpin of Les Bleus, whipped the ball into the six yard box from the wide left area of the field. Inter Milan attacker Youri Djorkaeff evaded his marker, rushing to meet the ball with his head. He had all the time in the world to bag his header, though he rushed it, heading it high and wide.

After twenty minutes Brazil finally mustered a chance, with Ronaldo showing a flash of his usual self. He eased past France’s semi final hero Lilian Thuram on the left wing, arcing a cross deep into the six yard box. The cross was caught by Fabian Barthez, France’s eccentric goalkeeper, although the catch wasn’t clean. Bebeto was ready to pounce on the chance, but Barthez recovered from his error with ease. Luckily for France the weather was dry, a wet ball may have changed the legacy of French football!

Around the half hour mark, France grabbed the opening goal. Emmanuel Petit crossed the ball in, his ball connecting with the head of Zinedine Zidane. Zidane rose above his marker, Leonardo, to bullet his header beyond Claudio Taffarel. He ran over the advertising barrier and towards the crowd, almost unsure of how best to celebrate this momentous goal.

Emmanuel Petit very nearly turned to scorer with five minutes to go in the first half. Christian Karembeu took a pot shot at goal from distance. It never looked like going in, but it did take a deflection off a Brazilian defender, skewing the ball into the centre of the box. Petit controlled the ball, swivelled and shot, but his strike could only ripple the side netting.

France were turning the screw, using the advantage of the rapturous home support to spur on their players. As the clock hit 45, France took a break from their usual neat passing to try their hand at some good ol’ fashioned route one. Lilian Thuram launched a ball up the centre of the field, over the hapless centre backs. Stephane Guivarc’h latched onto the defensive lapse and carried the ball all the way into the penalty area. He bottled his shot, hitting it into the body of Taffarel.

A minute into stoppage time and France doubled their lead. Youri Djorkaeff curled his free kick in to the near post. Zidedine Zidane capitalised on a defensive mix up in the box to power his header low into the bottom right corner. The AMC of Algerian heritage had performed wonderfully during this tournament, though his two headers in the final were the only goals the Juventus player would score that summer. Twice in World Cup finals, Zidane’s head had notoriety. Thankfully, in 1998, this was for a good reason.

Ronaldo was evidently not himself. The ball broke to him in the box as a result of a well worked free kick, yet the strike was tame at best. Roberto Carlos worked the ball wide, crossing the ball into the box. It was deflected to the back post, the sting taken out of the ball. Ronaldo took the ball down and glided past Guivarc’h, firing low into the body of Fabian Barthez. It was starting to look like it just wasn’t Brazil’s day.

Fabian Barthez was both keeping France in the match AND trying his best to give Brazil a lifeline. He rushed well off his line to claim a long throw in from Roberto Carlos. He misjudged the pace on the throw, and was put off by the jump of Rivaldo. The ball dropped to Bebeto, who hit it at the Barthez-less goal. The ball was poorly hit and was blocked by Marcel Desailly.

Marcel Desailly was having a solid game, yet a moment of recklessness nearly jeopardised his teams chance of lifting the World Cup. Already on a booking, the defender rushed up the field to chase down a long ball. He clattered into Cafu at pace, wiping the full back out and leaving the referee no choice but to show him a second yellow card. France were in total control, but with a man less against Brazil with twenty minutes to go, it was a challenge.

With under ten minutes to go, Christophe Dugarry had the chance to put the game to bed. Dugarry ran the line, passing back to Zidane and spinning behind the last line of defence into space. Zidane hit the pass first time, up and over the defence. It was a move of perfection. Dugarry dribbled to the edge of the box, firing well wide. The pass was perfect, the shot was…not…

Denilson hit the bar for Brazil in the 90th minute. He received a pass in the box and dribbled round Chelsea centre half Frank Leboeuf. He struck the ball with venom, hitting it over Barthez and off the crossbar. A minute later and Brazil came close again. Rivaldo appeared to be frustrated at his sides lack of conviction and blasted the ball at goal from 30 yards out. The ball took a deflection and bounced inches wide, leaving Barthez scrambling to get down in time.

From Brazil’s resulting corner, France scored. Christophe Dugarry collected the ball on the edge of his own box, dribbling up field towards the halfway line. He crossed into the Brazilian half, spreading the ball left to substitute Patrick Vieira. Vieira passed into the box, allowing his Arsenal teammate Emmanuel Petit to caress the ball past Claudio Taffarel and into the net. It was a glorious counter attacking goal and one that put the glaze on the croissant (terrible French equivalent of cherry on the cake…)

Brazil had been an immovable object in France during the summer of ’98. They had swept past every side with relative ease and looked like the favourite to lift the trophy going into the final. Few could begrudge Les Bleus their victory, however. They rose to the challenge of rebuilding the reputation of French football, revolutionising the outlook of a nation who had lost touch with their national team for so long. They too had enjoyed a solid summer of football and on the day, they were just too strong. The Ronaldo pre-game confusion is an issue that was never truly discovered. It would have been interesting to see what Ronaldo would have done to a French side, cheated out of playing their centre half Laurent Blanc due to the diving of Slaven Bilic. It is hypothetical, though. The fact is that Ronaldo didn’t show up that day. Zidane did. Petit did. Thuram did. History rarely remembers the players that failed to show up on the big stage, it often rewards those who rose to the occasion. Ronaldo had his day in a World Cup final, four years later, as did many others in that squad. Many of that losing ’98 team also tasted victory in 1994,
against Italy. But on July 13th, 1998, the nation of France rejoiced as their local hero’s completed the ultimate football revolution: eight years of World Cup anonymity turned into a World Cup legend.

Tomorrow’s game: July 13th. Germany v Argentina. 2014.