A team named France
It all started in the 1998 World Cup, which the French saw as their divine mission to win. They were playing with a startling new generation of emerging stars, more importantly in front of their home fans; their final three matches taking place at Paris’ new Stade de France, custom made for the occasion. The French had even re-issued the same shirt design from their one previous success, the mirror 1984 European Championship win at home, to ensure that even the gods would look kindly on this once-in-a-lifetime endeavour.
It seems most of the French football establishment rallied around in the years ahead of the victory, with men like Monaco coach (and ex-Bleus stalwart) Jean Tigana putting the ephemeral success of his club to one side to work with French coach Aimé Jacquet in order to ensure that young, fragile talents such as Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet would not be lost in the mail.
France overcame a crippling lack of forward line to win, but their midfield and backline were dominant. France’s great white hope was Zinedine Zidane, a playmaking attacking central midfielder from Marseille, of Algerian parents. His game involved a range of short passing and maintenance of a game’s flow. Hailed as ‘God’ and untouchable after the World Cup win, Zidane in my eyes was rather more something of a maverick, who controlled some games single-handedly and faded from others. He was the worldwide talent of his generation, to be sure (alongside Dennis Bergkamp), although calling him third to only Maradona and Pele was surely stretching it. He and Juventus had unexpectedly lost the previous two Champions League finals and he had feared becoming yet another artsy non-winner at the highest level. His two uncharacteristic goals headed from corner kicks in the final against Brazil ensured that he would maintain a place in the heart as his country’s champion in a greater way than almost any other player, to the extent that he was unconditionally pardoned in his home country for stupidly throwing away the 2006 World Cup final.
The other indomitable figures who won the trophy for France (although given the midfield dominance, one wonders if they had all that much to do) were the legendary defenders Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly. Thuram in particular, slightly younger than Blanc and Desailly, would have a long career as France’s wise-man and peacemaker, a secondary leader aiding the cause of the behind-the-scene generals Didier Deschamps and Patrick Vieira. He scored two classic goals in the World Cup semi-final against the upstart Croatian team, a beautiful anomaly given he never scored for France before or again. As he remarked, years later: “I don’t think about those goals that much, but they definitely will be showing them when I die.”
The unsung hero for France that year was the hustling midfielder Emmanuel Petit, he of the long blond horse mane, who scored the cherry on top goal with virtually the last kick of the World Cup. He was versatile enough to both score two goals at France 98 as well as fall back into central defence for the gritty final twenty minutes against Brazil with central defenders Blanc and Desailly both indisposed. He would not be seen at this level again, as indeed would occur to almost every one of the star players who left Arsenal for supposedly greener, advanced pastures over the next decade.
The other notable point from this tournament for the French was the debut of two untried forwards, Henry and Trezeguet. Henry would play a useful role in the French team’s glory (and they both crucially stood up in the penalty shootout against Italy), but their lack of effect on the scoresheet as the tournament cranked up could be gauged in France’s Zidane-less struggle as the knockout matches began. France were terrible in stuttering to victory in the 114th minute against Paraguay and with Zidane back were dominant but toothless in beating Italy after a 120-minute goalless draw, the only two matches France didn’t stroll on their way to victory. France, in fact, relied on three goals from their backline just to make it to their Brazilian face-off.
Henry and Trezeguet, while experiencing the undoubted glory of winning a World Cup, were more ‘for the future’. This golden future they delivered at Euro 2000 for France and would have stellar careers ripping up England and Italy respectively, although curiously neither would be consistent fixtures of the Champions League over the next decade, nor for France either in Trezeguet’s case. France and world football in general could have also been supplemented by a similar gem emerging around this time, Nicholas Anelka, but his attitude never cut it and ensured that he didn’t deliver at the top after his first heady years.
The Ajax babies
If the main story going forward from this World Cup was the beginning of ongoing success for one young, iconic team, the ignored story is of the forgotten magnificence of the other young, iconic team in France – or who should have become, but didn’t – who began here a trajectory of underachievement that compared almost immaculately with their fathers, Johan Cruyff’s cherished team of the 1970s who could never quite get there amid rank bad luck and infighting.
Holland had revived the lost art of total football that had died twenty years ago. Philip Cocu and Ronald de Boer, the penalty culprits in the semi-final (only the good die young) had magnificent tournaments dynamically running the show from midfield while defensive midfielder Edgar Davids, only brought into the team after the their stuttering first match, ruled the field for the rest of the tournament. Patrick Kluivert, the forward who in many ways was the face of this generation, came back from a long three-match suspension to both score key goals against Argentina and Brazil and miss the chances that would have sealed Holland’s progress through the semi-final against Brazil. Meanwhile the genius forward Dennis Bergkamp provided perhaps the seminal moment of Dutch greatness at any World Cup – probably even the greatest ever World Cup goal – by cushioning a sixty-metre pass from the defence, touching it past his marker before it hit the ground and then releasing a ridiculous outside of the boot finish from across the penalty area in the last minute of the quarter-final against Argentina, all within the span of about two seconds.
That generation were the Ajax babies who had astonishingly won the 1995 Champions League (winning goal scorer Kluivert was only 19). They were heavily dependent on a wave of players of Surinamese descent, unlike the generation that came after them in 2010. The team had rebounded from a terrible division along racial lines in 1996 with Edgar Davids the main casualty, who was only reinstated two years later.
There was only one more moment of greatness to come from this team in the years that followed. After playing like world champions-in-waiting in the semi-final against Brazil, they linked their arms around each other for the penalty shootout – a team reunited. But Brazil, the masters of individualism, won the very individualistically designed penalty shootout and the Dutch stuttered over the next years, only getting it together to defeat France and then a 6-1 demolition of Yugoslavia at Euro 2000 before once again – this time epically, on home soil – coming apart when faced with the dreaded penalties against Italy, just when they once again appeared to be ready to show the world a new face of football.
Once again the arguably inferior France took the spoils, and Holland were so traumatised, the setback so final, that they reverted to their pre-tournament inconsistency and didn’t even qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It was the end, for everyone except the surprisingly redoubtable Clarence Seedorf, an intelligent man who evolved from one of the main instigators in the 1996 racial crisis to elder statesman for Milan and became the first man win the Champions League with three different clubs.
Ronaldo-Rivaldo, to die for
As mentioned, Holland had lost the semi-final on penalties to Brazil after a 1-1 draw, arguably the last epic World Cup match to date along the lines of Italy-Brazil 82 and the like. No World Cup match has compared since. Brazil’s turnover from their previous 1994 World Cup winners had been surprisingly massive (or unsurprisingly, if one peruses the list of no-names who played for Brazil that year).
1998 was the beginning of the Rivaldo-Ronaldo tandem that would deliver Brazil to two World Cup finals. Ronaldo was the golden boy, an attacker whose pace, ball control and supreme finishing had seldom been seen before. Rivaldo, meanwhile, a cross between a goal scoring forward and an attacking midfielder and thus able to dovetail perfectly with Ronaldo rather than get in his way, was constantly criticised by the Brazilian public but was rumoured to be more of a coach’s player, who was rated more by 2002 coach Luiz Felipe Scolari than Ronaldo was, whatever that was worth.
Rivaldo came into his own in the quarter- and semi-final of this 1998 World Cup before vanishing when needed most in the final against France, which incidentally would occur again in the 2002 final, with lesser consequences. He would go on to become football’s it boy, its number one over the four years following 1998, scoring loads of goals for Barcelona and somewhat single-handedly winning the 2002 World Cup for Brazil. There was a Ballon d’Or, one-man shows in the Champions League against Manchester United and Milan, last-minute season-saving bicycle kicks, the whole gamut, although he was unable to take Barcelona the final step in a rollicking 2000 Champions League campaign. After the glory of the 2002 World Cup, however, he immediately fell for the curse of the Brazilian forward (also see Romario, Ronaldinho, Kaka) and astonishingly – given what had been seen previously – faded from the world scene once mission had been accomplished, even though he continued to play into his forties. After 2002 no one ever mentioned him again.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile number one, Ronaldo, unleashed a Brazilian melodrama the afternoon of their date with destiny, the final versus France. He suffered a convulsive fit in the hotel room, Brazil and he in particular barely turned up to contest the final (losing 3-0) and Brazil would go through years of previously unknown doubt and uncertainty, barely qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002.
The same thing happened to Ronaldo. He would spend all of the next four years injured, barely playing a game of club football. But he randomly starred at the 1999 Copa America for Brazil and even more randomly came back from three years of hiatus to score eight goals at the 2002 World Cup, a modern tournament miracle. The injuries curtailed his pace but he had somehow not lost his goal smarts, his unmatched ability to shoot on sight and score in copious amounts. He had both a mixed and successful career, and a confusing one. Was he one of the greatest players ever? Did he need to add more to his resume at club level? Is being the King an abstract concept sometimes?
He had floated through the 1998 World Cup alternatively uninterested and dominant, only scoring three goals in open play despite having a star quality and potential for dominance not seen since Diego Maradona. Against type, he created two through passes in the quarter-final (finished by others) and dazzled in the semi-final against Holland, giving one of the great individual performances. He won the FIFA’s 1998 World Cup Golden Ball purely on hype when forwards like Davor Suker and Christian Vieri had scored more consistently, and Juan Veron and Edgar Davids had been more encompassing. Meanwhile in 2002 Ronaldo was far less involved but scored double the goals. Go figure. Perhaps if he could have combined his 1990s form and speed with his 2002 goal scoring nous he really could have given a shake to Just Fontaine’s unbreakable record of thirteen goals at a single World Cup tournament.