As I watched the European and World Cup champions Spain completely overrun the French team during the Euro 2012 quarter final, my mind began to wander. Although there is no denying that this is an extremely special Spain team, and one that will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, how would it rate against the World Cup and European Championship-winning French team of 1998-2000? This is a debate that will no doubt linger on for many years to come and one that I have struggled to decipher. It led me to reminisce on the sheer brilliance of Les Bleus that dominated world football in the years 1998-2000.
There was a certain degree of optimism in the French capital prior to the beginning of World Cup 1998. As the host nation, and with the domestic league booming, the French had a right to be optimistic. In their ranks they possessed a star that shone brighter than most in the world, and he was ready to perform on the world’s highest stage; Zizou was ready.
Zinedine Zidane, or Zizou, as he was affectionately known was born to Algerian parents in a Marseille suburb. It was here that Zidane first learned about the game that would mould his life. This moment would shape the footballing landscape of the world forever. Zidane was spotted at the age of fourteen by an AS Cannes scout and they quickly snapped him up, noting the potential that the young Zizou possessed. He went on to make his Ligue 1 debut at the age of just 17 and the rest is history. Success followed Zizou everywhere he went, winning almost everything the game had to offer, both nationally with Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid, and internationally with Les Bleus. Zidane captured the hearts of the world with his outstanding footballing brain and the suave he possessed on and off the pitch. There is no doubting that he is one of the all-time greats of the game.
France were drawn in a relatively easy group for the 1998 World Cup and they steam-rolled their opponents (3-0 vs South Africa, 4-0 vs Saudi Arabia, 2-1 vs Denmark). Although the optimism began to build in the French camp, many critics believed that they were unproven and that tougher challenges lay ahead. After defeating a sticky Paraguay side in the round of 16 thanks to an extra-time Blanc goal, the French were held goalless for 120 minutes against the Italians in the quarter final. They went on to win on penalties and although they were elated, two extra-time games was not ideal preparation for a World Cup semi-final against a strong Croatian outfit.
France started brightly and dominated the first half, yet could not make their dominance count and the Croatians took full advantage; Davor Suker needing only one chance to prod past Barthez in the French goal. However, the French displayed the fighting spirit that had gotten them to the semi-finals and the outstanding full back Lillian Thuram came up with two goals to put Les Bleus into the World Cup Final and set up a mouth-watering clash against a strong Brazilian team.
The pre-match build up was shrouded in controversy surrounding Ronaldo, the Brazilian wonderkid who had become the most potent striker in world football. Many billed this final as a Clash of the Titans, referring to Zidane vs. Ronaldo. Unfortunately, Ronaldo was not fully fit and was non-existent throughout the game. Zidane produced a masterclass, scoring two wonderful headers and controlling the entire game. Emmanuel Petit wrapped up the game with another and France became World Champions in their home stadium of Stade de France.
The majority of the French World Cup team stayed together for the subsequent European Championships in 2000, with experienced heads like Laurent Blanc, Zizou, Desailly, Djorkaeff and the talismanic captain Didier Deschamps helping to integrate the younger guns like Sylvain Wiltord, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet into the squad. Although Trezeguet had been part of the French 1998 squad, he had only played a bit-part role, little did he know what was to come. The blend of youth and experience only served to aid the French cause and the link-up play between the likes of Zidane and Henry was a joy to watch at times.
France were drawn in a group with the Netherlands, Denmark and the Czech Republic. There was a lot of pressure on the team to perform after their heroics in Paris two years prior. They easily saw off the challenges of Denmark and subsequently, the Czech Republic. They lost a group decider to a strong Dutch team on a scoreline of 3-2, setting up a quarter final against a Spain team that were making remarkable progress. Names like Raul, Salgado, Casillas were still young and had extremely bright futures in the game. Although France went on to win 3-2 thanks to Zidane and Djorkaeff, the Spanish knew that they would have their day in the sun and the future was promising.
France faced Portugal in the semi-finals and it was a tight affair with young superstar Thierry Henry cancelling out Nuno Gomes opener. The game went into extra-time and looked destined for penalties, until the usual suspect brought France closer to world football domination. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and there was no cooler man than Zinedine Zidane. He effortlessly slotted home the match winner from the spot with three minutes left on the clock. Italy awaited the World Champions in their date with footballing destiny.
Zidane had continued to show the world just how talented he was with some excellent performances in crunch games. Whenever the French found themselves in a sticky situation, they looked upon Zidane as the man with the wizardry to unlock any defence and conjure up moments of brilliance. He was coolness personified in all walks of life and the world could not help but fall under his spell.
The Italians started the final well and took the lead through Marco Delvecchio in the 55th minute. From that moment on, France were in a race against time. As the minutes passed and chances went a begging, it began to look more and more like it was going to be the Italians’ day. One characteristic of this great French team was the perseverance they had shown over the last few years. From the extra time defeat of Paraguay and the penalty win against the Italians in 1998, right up to the semi-final win against Portugal just days prior, this French team had a never-say-die attitude that is often the key ingredient in creating a successful team.
With the clock running down and France’s hopes of becoming the first team to win the Euros as World champions slowly evaporating, a certain Sylvain Wiltord popped up with a 94th minute equaliser. This was a crushing blow to the Italians and brought back memories of their penalty loss to the same opposition in the World Cup quarter-finals just two short years ago. France continued to improve in extra time and pushed for a winner. They went from strength to strength, and the Italians were shook. France’s pressure told in the 103rd minute when a young David Trezeguet scored what was undoubtedly the most important goal of his career.
France had done what no other team had ever done before. They had trudged through uncharted waters and reached the promised land. They were World and European Champions and there is no doubting that they rightly deserved both accolades. Zidane was their Moses, as he parted the sea of opponents they faced with ease. Their spiritual leader was undoubtedly Dider Deschamps, a man who was once described by Eric Cantona as merely a “water-carrier”. The group of apostles that the French had at their disposal read like a who’s who of world stars; Vieira, Blanc, Desailly, Djorkaeff, Lizarazu.
This group of players are a collection that football managers can only dream about. Are they better than the Spain team that are present today? Was Pele better than Maradona? Is Ronaldo better than Messi? These are debates that will linger on for decades and, just like religion, football has many unanswered questions. Karl Marx once said: “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. I would have to disagree and say that football is the opiate of the masses, and something that I could not live without.
SPORT IS EVERYTHING. RB.
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