On July 12, 1998, the France national team created history by winning the country’s first World Cup. It was one of the most memorable and intense moments the nation had ever experienced and transcended football; this triumph had social repercussions and brought a sense of unity that, arguably, had only previously come about because of war. Today we look back at their glorious campaign.
France’s victorious 1998 World Cup squad, nicknamed the “Rainbow Team,” was composed of players with backgrounds from all corners of the globe. Their victory against Brazil, which secured the nation’s first ever World Cup, is estimated to have drawn at least a million men, women and children — of white, black and Arab heritage — to Paris’ Champs-Élysées. Some accounts estimated as many as 1.5 million French fans lined the famous shopping street to celebrate. With a squad made up of players with ethnic backgrounds from North Africa, West Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific islands, Armenia and the Basque country, there was hope this team could help improve the legacy of France’s complex history of race relations. The faces of the fans on the street were as diverse as those they were cheering on the pitch. That France’s victory helped unite a nation; such is the power of football.
France 1998 was also a World Cup of several anomalies. The tournament saw the Jamaica grace the Group stage, Iran beat the USA 2-1, Spain failing to emerge from their Group after losing to Nigeria and a surprise package in Croatia. It was Croatia’s first finals, and Davor Suker’s six goals sent them all the way to third place, as they defeated an ageing Germany 3-0 along the way before losing to a Lillian Thuram inspired France in the last four. It was a World Cup featuring the first ‘Golden Goal’ in extra time, as Laurent Blanc’s strike saw France edge Paraguay 1-0 in the second round. Italy would then lose their third penalty shootout in a row at a World Cup to the French after a 0-0 draw in Paris. Ronaldo entered the tournament as the man everyone was expecting to dominate the World Cup. The 21 year old was World Player of the Year in 1996 and 1997 and his lightning speed; close control and deadly accuracy with the boot helped Brazil believe they could retain the trophy. Ronaldo had three goals before finding the net as Brazil and Holland reached 120 minutes at 1-1. The South Americans won the shoot-out and were expected to beat France in the final at the Stade de France.
However, France, managed by Aime Jacquet, were tough nuts throughout the tournament. This was the month when Zinedine Zidane became a worldwide household name. But defensively and in midfield France were very strong throughout the team. Fabien Barthez, Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit all had big tournaments, and Thierry Henry contributed three goals before being benched for the final. It was a final shrouded in confusion before kickoff, as Ronaldo wasn’t on the Brazilian team sheet. It emerged he had some form of convulsion earlier in the day. Eventually he did play, but Brazil was out of sorts. Their defence was already suspect, with a defeat to Norway and a two goal concession to Denmark in their back catalogue. Zidane headed in two goals from corners in the first half, and Petit added the icing on the cake late on. Ronaldo was disconsolate, but he did win the Golden Ball for best player and would end up a World Cup winner 4 years later. For France, it was a first ever World Cup after 68 years of trying. Zidane, who as a son of Algerian immigrants was part of a French squad that broke down barriers of ethnicity and race, overcame an early sending off against Saudi Arabia to lead the way and ensure that in 1998, football was red, white and blue. A united bunch with great individual talent, France would go on to win Euro 2000.
Initially, France ended up in a group alongside Denmark, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, with games at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, the Stade Gerland in Lyon and the Stade de France in the Parisian suburbs. With the mercurial Fabien Barthez in goal, an ironclad defence of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu, a muscular midfield of Didier Deschamps, Patrick Vieira, Christian Karembeu and Emmanuel Petit, and a frenetic attack comprised of David Trezeguet, Youri Djorkaeff, Robert Pirès and Thierry Henry, they tore through the group at a blistering pace. There was also the small matter of their talismanic captain, the imperious Zinedine Zidane. Owing to his Algerian heritage and his tough, working-class background, Zidane was a hero to the thousands of French citizens who could trace their family histories back to North Africa, and was in many ways the poster boy of a revolutionized national team. He was also sent off in the second game of the group stage – a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia – not that it would hinder France in their quest to top the group with three wins from three. Zidane’s insolent stamp on Fuad Anwarcould be seen as a forerunner to his infamous red card in the World Cup final eight years later, but for now the French only had to worry about how to get by without him in the Round of 16. In the end, it was only through a late golden goal from Laurent Blanc that they defeated Paraguay, with their South American opponents making life extremely difficult for them. There was much nail-biting when they were then drawn with Italy in the quarter-finals, with the Azzurri runners-up at World Cup ’94 and semi-finalists four years previous.
In what was an unbearably tense game for France fans – and possibly just an unbearable game for everyone else – two magnificent back fours fought a titanic battle at the Stade de France, with an Italian defense of Bergomi, Cannavaro, Costacurta and Maldini more than a match for Thuram, Lizarazu, Blanc and Desailly. Unsurprisingly, the fixture was still goalless after extra time, and a guarded game was decided on penalties. Despite Lizarazu missing the second spot kick for France, Italy were let down first by Demetrio Albertini and then by Roma midfielder Luigi Di Biagio. Fabien Barthez saved coolly from Albertini, while Di Biagio’s effort rebounded back off the crossbar. The ground shook with celebration, and France was through. Having dispatched Croatia in the semi-finals – though not before some gamesmanship from Slaven Bilic had made sure Blanc would miss the final through suspension – France was pitted against the majesty of Brazil. The final would be overshadowed by a bizarre incident involving Ronaldo, with the brilliant Brazilian striker suffering a seizure the day before the match but nonetheless being rushed back into the starting line-up, with his inclusion announced barely an hour before kickoff. Conspiracy theories abounded, especially when he proceeded to put in a lackluster performance as Brazil went 2-0 down before half-time. France was magnificent with Zidane ascendant, a phoenix from the ashes of gratuitous disciplinary issues. The captain scored two first-half headers and, when Emmanuel Petit put some gloss on the scoreline in the final minute, there was no doubt as to the winners. To an outpouring of national euphoria, France lifted the World Cup for the first time on home turf.