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.
Group B: 1. Italy; 2. Chile; 3. Austria; 4. Cameroon
This was not the most exciting of groups, with only one of the four teams winning any games at all – Italy, who beat Austria and Cameroon, following a draw with Chile. The South Americans actually ended up drawing all three of their matches and thus progressed to the second round. Chile were most notable for the presence of Marcelo Salas up front, a striker who was familiar to anyone who had played Championship Manager and found him to be a bargain-buy who would turn into a goal-scoring machine. Salas scored four times in his country’s four matches at World Cup 98 and subsequently moved to Lazio in Serie A – never again to be a cheap purchase in the computer management game.
The Italians were no longer so reliant on Roberto Baggio to weave his magic for them, though the Divine Ponytail was still an important part of the team that also featured Alessandro Del Piero – Baggio’s eventual successor in the playmaker/genius role – and free-scoring Christian Vieri up front, who nabbed four goals in the group stages. There is not much else to note about Group B, save for the fact that in his country’s 1-1 draw with Austria, Pierre Njanka scored one of the goals of the tournament for Cameroon, but the late equalizer from Toni Polster in that match ultimately cost the African nation a place in the second round.
Group C: 1. France; 2. Denmark; 3. South Africa; 4. Saudi Arabia
The hosts won all three of their matches in Group C, scoring 9 goals in the process and looking like a team that could go far, with Thierry Henry – who at the time was deployed on the left-wing and was still a year away from joining Arsenal and joining my list of players that I actively rooted against – and David Trezeguet providing France with pace and excitement, as well as goals. One big downside for the French was that in their second fixture against Saudi Arabia, Zidane was sent off for a stamp and was thus banned until the quarter-final stage. The one moment of violent reaction to a tackle belied the calm brilliance he had displayed up until that point, in particular, his pass to Bixente Lizarazu to set up the first goal for Henry was absolutely sublime and make this 6 minute video (that seems to include every single touch by Zidane) well worth watching. Denmark made it through in second place thanks to a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia and then a draw against South Africa in their next fixture. Saudi Arabia – who had been the surprise package four years earlier – scored only two goals at the tournament, both from the penalty spot in their final match, a 2-2 draw with South Africa.
Group D: 1. Nigeria; 2. Paraguay; 3. Spain; 4. Bulgaria
Spain went into the World Cup in 1998 as one of the potential dark horses of the tournament – a position they perennially occupied prior to their breakout success in the 2008 European Championships – and had been performed particularly well in friendlies prior to the start of the championship. However, they were caught out in their opening match by Nigeria, who scored twice in the final twenty minutes to win 3-2, the first of which was badly spilled into his own net by goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta. There was no mistake about the winner, which came from a fantastic long-range strike by Sunday Oliseh. Spain seemed rattled by that defeat and were held to a goalless draw in their next match against Paraguay, before thrashing Bulgaria 6-1 in their final group fixture, but that result was rendered irrelevant as the South Americans beat Nigeria – who were already guaranteed first place – 3-1 to claim second spot and a berth in the Round of 16.
Group E: 1. Netherlands; 2. Mexico; 3. Belgium; 4. South Korea
In the opening match of Group E, a Mexico player was closed down by two South Korean defenders on the wing, then eluded them but nothing happened with the move. That may not sound like the most exciting passage of play from the World Cup, but it was actually an iconic moment from the tournament, as to get past his opponents, Cuauhtémoc Blanco trapped the ball between both his legs, then jumped between the South Koreans letting the ball fall in front of him. The skill was dubbed the “Cuauhtemiña” and was replayed in every single highlights package from France 98, not to mention became a playground favorite that everybody wanted to try the next day (myself included). Mexico won that match 3-1, before drawing with both Belgium and the Netherlands 2-2, ending up in second behind the Dutch who had opened their tournament with a 0-0 tie with Belgium, before putting five past South Korea. The Belgians were eliminated in third place despite being unbeaten at the World Cup – their three draws would like have been enough to make them one of the better third placed teams had there still been only 24 teams in the competition, but they found themselves making the short journey home earlier than they would have hoped.
Group F: 1. Germany; 2. Yugoslavia (AKA Serbia); 3. Iran; 4. United States
When the draw for the World Cup was made, the date of June 21st was circled in the calendar as one to look out for, since the political adversaries of USA and Iran would face off in Lyon. While a football matches has actually been a catalyst to a wars before (a brief conflict between El Salvador and Honduras following a qualification fixture for the 1970 World Cup), on this occasion diplomacy took over, as the Iranian captain – goalkeeper Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh – presented Thomas Dooley with a comically large number of gifts in the handshake prior to kickoff, then both sets of players stood arm-in-arm for a team photograph. Iran won the match 2-1 and that was the only points and goals that either country recorded, as Germany and Yugoslavia dominated the group and drew 2-2 when they faced each other, to both end on 7 points.
This group also gives me the perfect time to rant in full about the Guardian’s list of top 100 all-time World Cup footballers, in which the current USA manager Jürgen Klinsmann is ranked down in 96th place. Of course all these types of lists are subjective, but I cannot fathom how Klinsmann – who won the World Cup in 1990 and scored 11 goals in 17 games across three tournaments – is ranked: 30 places below Paul Gascoigne (1 World Cup, 6 games, 0 goals, 1 great assist against Belgium, 2 yellow cards, lots of tears); and 45 below Lionel Messi, who has done nothing in the two World Cups he has played in save for a goal against Serbia in a match Argentina won 6-0. For me – admittedly with some Spurs bias – I would have put Klinsmann in my top 20, let alone barely scraping into the 100.
Group G: 1. Romania; 2. England; 3. Colombia; 4. Tunisia
England’s tournament started in Marseille against Tunisia with a 2-0 victory, Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes scoring the goals, though the match was marred by violence between the two sets of supporters in the build-up to, and aftermath of, the game. Romania had started with a 1-0 success against Colombia and then shocked the English with a last-minute winner from Dan Petrescu to beat Glenn Hoddle’s men 2-1, after youngster Michael Owen had come off the bench to draw England level. With qualification for the knockout stages on the line, Hoddle changed things around for the final group match against Colombia, giving starts Beckham and Owen, in place of Teddy Sheringham and David Batty. The move worked as England enjoyed a comfortable 2-0 victory, with Beckham getting on the scoresheet with a trademark free-kick, following Darren Anderton’s – an oft injured Spurs midfielder dubbed “Sicknote” – opener. Romania earned a draw against Tunisia in their third game and thus topped the group, meaning that England ended in second and would have to face the winners of Group H in the second round…
Group H: 1. Argentina; 2. Croatia; 3. Jamaica; 4. Japan
Facing what looked like a relatively easy group heading into the tournament, Argentina did not disappoint with three victories and seven goals for in Group H – five of which came against Jamaica, including a hat-trick for “Angel” Gabriel Batistuta – and none conceded. Newcomers to the World Cup Croatia – who of course had previously constituted part of Yugoslavia prior to the Balkans War in the early 1990s – had assured their passage to the second round with victories in their opening two matches, prior to their defeat to Argentina. Davor Šuker – who had come to the fore during the 1996 European Championships in England – notched two of his country’s goals and went on to be the Golden Boot winner at France 98.
Although it was the last of the Round of 16 games to be played, I have to start with the fixture between Argentina and England, since it was by far the most memorable for me. The opening 45 minutes was action packed, with Argentina taking an early lead from a dubious penalty converted by Batistuta, before Owen went up the other end, dived and won a spot kick for England that Alan Shearer converted. Nobody complained about the simulation from Michael Owen because it was considered only fair given what had happened at the other end, but had that been a foreign player diving in the Premiership, he would forever have been associated with playacting. There was nothing but brilliance about Owen’s next contribution however, as he took the ball into his stride with his heel in the centre circle, sped his way past two defenders, then dispatched the ball into the top corner to give England the lead and evidence they had a great young striker who could take them far in the competition.
However, on the stroke of half-tie, Javier Zannetti equalized following a free-kick then, shortly after half-time, came a defining moment in the game. Diego Simeone fouled Beckham near the half-way line and while he was on the ground, the England midfielder kicked out at Argentina’s captain, catching him on the back of the leg but not hard enough for the dramatic fall that followed. Even with the playacting, Beckham deserved the red card he was shown – though not the hatred he was shown on his return to the UK, something that is all but forgotten about now for one of the nation’s most beloved sports figures (it helped that he was part of the Manchester United treble winning team in the subsequent league season). Down to ten men, England had one of their trademark “heroic but ultimately failing” performances as they managed to take the contest to penalties, before the obvious outcome occurred when David Batty and Paul Ince missed their spot kicks – their third elimination via a shootout in eight years.
In the second round match between France and Paraguay, Laurent Blanc scored the first ever Golden Goal in World Cup history, ending the contest in the 113th minute when he headed in during extra-time which had taken on the format of “next goal wins”. In the other ties, Brazil thrashed Chile 4-1, with Ronaldo finding the net twice; Vieri scored the only goal as Italy knocked out Norway; Germany came from behind to beat Mexico 2-1; a last-minute goal by Edgar Davids gave Netherlands a 2-1 win over Yugoslavia; Denmark recorded an impressive 4-1 defeat of Nigeria; and a Davor Šuker penalty was enough for Croatia to knock out Romania.
While England may be notoriously bad at penalties, the same was true at the time of Italy who were eliminated from the World Cup via a penalty shootout for the third successive tournament. After losing to Argentina in the semi-finals in 1990, then in the final versus Brazil in 1994, it was a quarter-final loss to hosts France in 1998 following a 0-0 draw. There was redemption for Roberto Baggio, who stepped up first for Italy four years after his infamous miss and tucked the penalty away, but misses from Demetrio Albertini and Luigi Di Biagio meant that they once again had heartache from 12 yards.
Brazil continued to rack up their goal count, beating Denmark 3-2 as Rivaldo scored twice; while the Netherlands progressed to the semi-final thanks to a fantastic last-minute strike by Dennis Bergkamp against Argentina. The Dutchman took down a long ball with his first touch, put it past the defender with his second, then rifled it into the net with the outside of his right foot to record one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. There was a big shock in the other quarter-final, as Croatia continued their impressive debut performance to beat Germany 3-0, with Robert Jarni breaking the deadlock on the stroke of half-time with a long-range effort, then Goran Vlaović and Šuker rounded off the victory with two late goals on the counter-attack. Although it feels like that sparked a period of decline for Germany, in truth it was only the 2000 European Championship where they flopped: by 2002, they were back in the World Cup final.
Semi-Finals and Final
There was another penalty shootout in the semi-finals as Brazil were denied a victory in normal time by an 86th minute goal by Patrick Kluivert for the Netherlands, canceling out Ronaldo’s earlier effort. The Dutch missed two of their spot-kicks and thus Brazil made it to their second consecutive World Cup final, where they would face France, who beat Croatia 2-1 courtesy of two goals by Lillian Thuram. Once again there was a costly red card for the hosts, who had captain Laurent Blanc sent off for striking Slaven Bilic in an off-the-ball incident – the dismissal justified in spite of the Croatian defender’s ridiculous playacting.
It was not Blanc’s absence that was the most decisive one in the final however, rather the fact that Ronaldo went missing – in spirit if not in body – on the biggest stage of all. Hailed as the best player in the world and Brazil’s biggest hope of retaining the World Cup, prior to the start of the final Ronaldo’s name was absent from the team sheets and the rumor went around that he had suffered a fit. While he did eventually lineup for the match, he was clearly not himself and he was basically anonymous in the contest. France became the sixth host nation to win the World Cup – and first since Argentina had done so 20 years earlier – with a 3-0 victory against the out-of-sorts Brazilians, with Zidane scoring the first two with headers, before Petit rounded off the victory with a third on the break. It was the most one-sided World Cup final since 1970, when Brazil had beaten Italy 4-1 and was something of an anticlimax in terms of competitiveness. Nevertheless, despite having been rooting against them because of their Arsenal contingent, it was hard not to be happy for France as they won the trophy for the first time, sparking celebrations across Paris and the rest of the nation.