France ’98 – The year I fell in love with football

by Andy Harte

Barthez BlancOne crazy month spent with a young Brazilian with the world at his feet, a magical Dutchman who wouldn’t fly, a country who had the best kits I had ever seen (Croatia), a group of peroxide blonde Romanians and a balding French man dancing his way around a football pitch and suddenly, at six years old, I found myself madly in love.

The World Cup. France ’98. The most magical month of my life. I’ve never felt excitement like it and especially not for something that I was actually oblivious to at the time. I had watched some football and played a bit but I never fully grasped it or became captivated with it the way I began to be on the 10th of June 1998.

Spending your summer holidays in a caravan, some days the only thing to do when you had kicked the same football into the same tiny Argos football net 500 times was to play cards or stare at the television. I stared at the television that day and it turned out to be the most fruitful decision to do something, I do quite regularly, I had ever made.

Ronaldo and those brilliant Brazilians

First game. Brazil v Scotland. Those vibrant yellow Brazilian jerseys immediately caught my eye and the names of Rivaldo, Bebeto and the 21-year-old Inter Milan striker, who was already a two-time World Player of the Year, Ronaldo were engraved into my mind.

I went out to the garden, dribbled past my dog and some imaginary players which was then followed up by shouting Ronaldo’s name as I kicked the ball into that net I had once been sick of seeing. That night, I dreamt about being Ronaldo and it is not surprising looking back now as, still to this day, he is the best out-and-out striker I have ever seen.

Magical Zizou

I owe it all to Zizou. I’m not sure how obsessed I would be with football if it wasn’t for him.

I didn’t think it would get better than the Brazilians but then along came Zinedine Zidane making light work of South Africa. At such a young age, a name like Zizou, which the commentator kept repeating, will stick in your head and that’s certainly what happened.

The constant mention of his name made me sit up and take notice and when I watched him I couldn’t take my eyes off. The turns, the passes, the mazy runs. He was everywhere. He saw things that other players couldn’t see and the things he did with the football absolutely amazed me and ignited an obsession that hasn’t filtered out since and never will.

Croatia and that wonderful jersey

I felt at the time that the Croatia kit was the best thing I had ever seen when they played the Reggae Boyz in 1998. I loved that nickname and those amazing picnic table inspired jerseys were a joy to see. Jamaica and Croatia is a game that many would have found hard to believe was taking place on the world’s biggest stage but it happened during France ’98 and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The skills of Davor Suker had me mesmerised from the start and that continued on until Croatia eventually finished third in the competition with Suker collecting the Golden Boot. It was Suker’s goals that helped Croatia to make it all the way to the semi-final in their first appearance at a World Cup losing out to eventual winners France.

Goals against Argentina

No surprise that Argentina had a team filled with stars at that World Cup. Juan Sebastian Veron’s bald head glistened as he ran around the pitch picking out passes that didn’t seem possible to make while Gabriel Batistuta did what he did best, score goals. The summer after this, I saw a Crespo jersey on my holidays in Spain and just had to have it.

However, it wasn’t really Argentina’s stars that shone but the goals they conceded that really stood out. They happened to be involved in two of the best World Cup goals ever scored during that tournament but unfortunately for them, it was at the wrong end.

I had a slight obsession with Michael Owen at the time, which may seem surprising for an Arsenal supporting Irishman, but to see an 18-year-old playing in the World Cup was absolutely amazing. Even more amazing to see was the goal he scored against Argentina in the second round.

He collected the ball with a touch on the outside of his foot near the centre circle and left Jose Chamot trailing behind struggling to keep pace with the Liverpool star. Owen then glided past Ayala and found himself in the box facing Argentina goalkeeper Carlos Roa. He struck the ball across Roa into the top left hand corner and scored a goal that made the world take notice.

Despite that goal, Argentina went on to win on penalties against an England side that had David Beckham sent off for a now infamous kick out at their captain Diego Simeone. In the quarter-final against Holland, they were again outdone by an amazing goal which actually knocked them out of the tournament this time.

In the 89th minute of the quarter-final, Frank de Boer hit a 50-yard pass which was met by one of the best touches of a football you are ever likely to see. Bergkamp took down the ball from the sky and dragged it back past a scrambling Ayala and hit it into the back of the net with the outside of his foot stunning Roa in the Argentina goal.

It was a jaw dropping moment and despite scoring countless great goals for club and country, Bergkamp says this was the best goal he has ever scored.

Finale

Going back to where I started, it is fitting that Ronaldo and Zidane played such big parts in the 1998 World Cup Final. After defeating Holland and Croatia in their respective semi-finals, hosts France and purveyors of the beautiful game Brazil would contest the deciding game.

Brazil made the final after a penalty shootout but it was goals from the unlikeliest of sources in the shape of Lillian Thuram that got France to the all-important showdown. The second goal was a thing of beauty as he surged up the pitch, received a pass from Thierry Henry and then proceeded to curl a shot around the diving goalkeeper.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t realise how important this goal really was. Yes, it sent France to the World Cup Final but not just any French team. That team were one of the first truly multi-ethnic teams in history and they were representing the multicultural people of the nation during a real struggle throughout the country.

They were under immense pressure to lift the cup as hosts and it was Thuram who sent them on their way. He went on to become the most capped player in French history but after two of the most important goals for his nation, he never found the net again for them.

In that semi-final, Laurent Blanc was sent off meaning he would miss the World Cup final. He was given his marching orders after Croatian defender Slaven Bilic went down a bit easily after an altercation and got Blanc controversially sent off. It also meant that Blanc had to continue his superstition of kissing goalkeeper Fabien Barthez head before the game as a nervous spectator and not a player.

When I heard Ronaldo wouldn’t be starting the final, I didn’t know what to do. I was so upset but the pain was eased by the fact that Zidane would definitely be playing for France. In the end it turned out that Ronaldo would be playing despite not being named in the starting team.

The reason for his original omission seemed to be a mystery with many theories being thrown out including that his sponsors Nike made him play despite suffering from an illness.

It turned out that Ronaldo suffered convulsions and collapsed leading up to the final but was so desperate to play and was so important to his team that he started the game after recovering just in time.
He started ahead of Edmundo who had saved Ronaldo from swallowing his tongue as he lost consciousness before the game but he couldn’t prevent Brazil from losing 3-0 in what should have been one of the most compelling finals of all time.

It was Zidane’s final. Determined. A man possessed. He wanted this more than anything else and he got it. Half an hour into the game and France got a corner. It was swung in and Zidane rose above the Brazilian defence to head in the opening goal.

In between this and Zidane’s second goal, Ronaldo had a chance to level the scores but was denied by the onrushing Barthez who took no prisoners in his challenge as both players needed medical attention afterward.

Just before half-time, Zizou made it two-nil with a carbon copy of his first goal. Again, leaping above the Brazil defenders, he sent his team on the way to the Holy Grail with a bullet header.

Marcel Desailly was sent off with 20 minutes to go but it was France who added insult to injury with one of the last kicks of the game. In the 90th minute, Emmanuel Petit received a perfect pass from Arsenal team-mate Patrick Vieira and slotted it into the net. 3-0. France were the champions of the world for the first time.

I can’t believe it’s over.

The World Cup was over. I was absolutely devastated. Four years was a very long time to wait for another. I waited for my next World Cup to come around in 2002 and even though Ireland were in it and made it to the second round only going out to Spain on penalties, I still couldn’t forget about 1998.

When I got a Playstation that Christmas, I played Fifa 99 every day until I spotted the World Cup 98 game one day in Extra Vision. I rented the game every weekend for a month trying to recreate the magic I felt the summer previous.

The song ‘Tubthumping’ which would be better known as ‘ I Get Knocked Down’ was the song that was repeated in the game and I knew the lyrics back to front. The official song for that tournament, ‘Carnival De Paris’ is still the best World Cup song I have ever heard.

I hope someday I might be lucky enough to see a World Cup that lives up to that one 16 years ago. It might happen this summer in Brazil. Who knows?

All I know is that I haven’t quite found that magic since then and I feel that I would be blessed as a football fan to witness anything close to France ’98 ever again.

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