In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90, USA 94; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006
Two years prior to the 1998 World Cup, England had made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships where they were once again knocked out on penalties by Germany, after they had come the width of a post and Paul Gascoigne’s toe length away from winning the match in extra-time. The tournament had been held in England and the fervor and excitement around the team had reached fever pitch beforehand with the release of the anthem “Three Lions” by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds. The unfortunate manner of their exit in those European Championships – although they once again were beaten on penalties, it was not until the first round of sudden death since both sides converted their first five spot-kicks – there was a growing belief that the generation of England players could actually achieve World Cup glory for the first time since 1966.
One of the most exciting things for me about France 98 was not just the increased expectations for England – which had grown even further thanks to a victory in Le Tournoi, a friendly tournament held in the summer of 1997 and also featuring Italy, France and Brazil – but also during the competition, there were going to be special episodes of Fantasy Football League. The show was based around the premise – unsurprisingly – of a fantasy football league, with various celebrities having teams as well as the two hosts, the aforementioned Baddiel and Skinner. In truth, it was just a vehicle for comedy about football and had started on Radio 5, before transferring to the BBC2 between 1994 and 1996, but the show had been off the air for two years, thus its return – on a different channel – was almost as exciting for me as the tournament itself. Essentially, Baddiel and Skinner were just fans of the game so their comic take came from a place that was very relatable to the average supporter, just phrased in a much funnier way.
There were several highlights of Fantasy Football League that summer, but the one that stick in my head 16 years later is Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, an Arsenal fan, blaming the national team’s failings on the “Tottenham influence”. France 98 was probably the height of my England fandom – the end of which I will cover in the 2006 Memories – in part because their manager at the time was the Spurs legend, Glenn Hoddle, but club tribalism was always more important than the international game. Even then – and infinitely more times now – if I could choose, I would pick Spurs winning the league of even F.A. Cup over England being World Cup champions and finding out Rotten was an outspoken Arsenal fan also resulted in me never wanting to listen to the Sex Pistols’ music. My loyalties to Tottenham also meant that I was actively rooting against France for the tournament, because two of their main players – Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieiria – had just helped the Gunners win their first Premiership title. The unfortunate side to this was that I never fully appreciated the genius and talent of Zinedine Zidane in his prime. In retrospect, I wish I had been rooting for Zidane during his career, because he was such a great player to watch.
Group A: 1. Brazil; 2. Norway; 3. Morocco; 4. Scotland.
The holders of the World Cup starting off their defence of the trophy with a 2-1 victory over luckless Scotland, who had recovered from conceding an early goal to draw level before half-time through a John Collins penalty, but then Tom Boyd scored an own goal to give Brazil the win. Compared to 1994, there was far more style and flair to the 1998 version of the South Americans, as they were led by Ronaldo up front and had the talented Rivaldo in the midfield. Also, at left-back Brazil played Roberto Carlos, who had come to everyone’s notice with a ridiculously brilliant free-kick in Le Tournoi the previous summer, before he spent the rest of his career sending most of his set-pieces into the stands, the wall and anywhere but the net, as he attempted to emulate that one great goal.
There was plenty of attacking brilliance on display in Brazil’s second victory, as they won 3-0 against Morocco with goals by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto. However, they were defeated in their final group match, 2-1 by Norway, who scored twice in the final seven minutes to secure qualification to the knockout stages. That was harsh on Morocco, who had the stylish Mustapha Hadji in midfield, as well as Yousseff Chippo, Salheddine Bassir and Abdejalil Hadda – all of whom had good tournaments – and they beat Scotland 3-0 in their third fixture, but were eliminated because of that Norwegian comeback and have not returned to the World Cup since. Continue reading