World Cup retrospect – France 98

From Cesar Sampaio’s headed goal for Brazil in the opening match of the tournament to Emmanuel Petit’s emphatic finish to seal World Cup victory for the host nation, the France 1998 World Cup generated shocks, created stars and provided some truly memorable moments. A stunning 171 goals were scored – the highest total in World Cup history – and it is also the only time that the hosts faced the holders in the final.

For 1998, the competition was expanded from 24 to 32 teams with the top two teams from eight groups of four progressing to straight knockout stages all the way to the final. However, in keeping with tradition, the holders were placed in Group A and kicked off the tournament, as 1994 winners Brazil edged out Scotland 2-1. The Brazilians’ qualification was fairly routine, doing just enough to top the group. They suffered a shock defeat against Norway, losing 2-1 in their final game as the Scandinavians joined the holders in the second round. Christian Vieri’s Italy cruised through Group B as the marksman set the early pace with four goals in three group games. The only dent in the Azzurri’s progression came in their opening game with a 2-2 draw against eventual group runners-up Chile. Austria scored once in each of their group games, with all three goals coming in added time. However, as with Cameroon, two draws and a defeat were not enough to progress.

Group C saw the hosts enter the tournament as they easily dispatched South Africa and Saudi Arabia – notching seven goals without conceding – yet lost star player Zinedine Zidane, who was sent off for stamping on a Saudi player. France did not miss him though as they beat Denmark 2-1 in their final group game to qualify ahead of the Danes with maximum points. For Group D, read Group of Death, as Spain, Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria were drawn together. In one of the outstanding results of the tournament, Nigeria came from behind to beat Spain 3-2, which proved to be the catalyst on the way to winning the group with six points. Paraguay followed them through as Spain crashed out despite a 6-1 victory over Bulgaria in their final game.

Holland were drawn alongside neighbours Belgium – as they were in USA 94 – with Mexico and South Korea in Group E. Holland’s 5-0 demolition of South Korea was the standout result, and turned out to be key as they took top spot on goal difference from surprise package Mexico. Similarly, Germany topped Group F on goal difference from Yugoslavia, a fact largely overshadowed by Iran’s 2-1 victory over USA. Amidst tense relations and a politically charged atmosphere Iran recorded their first ever World Cup win and a humiliating defeat for the USA.

Qualification from Group G went very much to form as Romania – first seeds – topped the group with England – second seeds – finishing second. Two of the eventual top scorers in the tournament were drawn together in Group H as Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta faced Croatia’s Davor Suker. Each scored in their first two games, but drew a blank when the two sides met with Mauricio Pineda’s solitary goal deciding first and second place. Debutants, Jamaica’s ‘Reggae Boyz’ didn’t do enough to progress but their fan base brought enthusiasm and vibrancy to the tournament.

The second round began immediately after the group games, continuing the hectic pace set by the tournament so far. Brazil and Denmark both recorded 4-1 victories against Chile and Nigeria respectively, to set up a quarter-final clash. Holland edged out Yugoslavia 2-1 to book a place in the quarter-final to face the winner of England versus Argentina. The clash lived up to its billing and produced the game of the tournament. After a penalty apiece, Michael Owen’s wonder-goal gave England the lead before a cleverly worked free-kick allowed Javier Zanetti to equalise. David Beckham was sent-off for a petulant kick prompting the headline: “10 heroic lions and one stupid boy” as they crashed out on penalties. Croatia, Germany, Italy and France all reached the quarter-final with single goal victories and Laurent Blanc became the first person to score a ‘Golden Goal’ in the World Cup.

Brazil showed both their flair and defensive frailty in a 3-2 victory over Denmark and the hosts beat Italy on penalties after a stalemate. The other two quarter-finals yielded high drama as the young footballing nation of Croatia humbled Germany’s ageing stars with a comprehensive 3-0 victory. Holland versus Argentina delivered perhaps the goal of the tournament as Dennis Bergkamp brought down Frank de Boer’s raking pass to turn inside the defender and fire home a late winner. However, they couldn’t progress further than the semi-finals, losing to Brazil on penalties. France had Lilian Thuram to thank for their win as the defender scored his first two goals for France, cancelling Davor Suker’s opener. Croatia went on to secure third place and Suker the Golden Boot – an incredible feat for such a young footballing nation.

The tournament offered the dream final as the hosts took on the holders, and added drama came prior to kick-off when Brazil’s teamsheet was missing the name of striker Ronaldo. Having suffered a fit on the eve of the final induced by anxiety and a bad reaction to a cortisone injection, Ronaldo then eased Coach Mario Zagallo’s selection dilemma by declaring himself fit to start. Backing his star to shine Zagallo played Ronaldo from the start, but he was a shadow of the player that had lit up the tournament so far. The hosts cruised to victory courtesy of two headed goals from Zidane – who gained redemption for his red card earlier in the competition – and a late strike from Petit. The sight of an estimated one million people lining the Champs Elysses on the night of the July 12, 1998 signified that le Coupe du Monde had returned to its spiritual home.

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