It is hard to believe the players who stumbled to a dismal 1-0 defeat against China a few days ago represented the same country that swept to such an exhilarating World Cup victory in 1998.
Pete Sixsmithremembers when France were the cultured giants of European football
Back to Europe for this one and to France, the homeland of Jules Rimet, Napoleon Bonaparte and Jacques Tati – and a country with proper football stadiums and a populace who knew something about the game.
Mind you, France is a strange country as far as football goes. The World Cup, European Cup and European Championships all came from here, but (Marseille apart – and some would argue that Marseille is NOT France) they don’t seem to have a great passion for the game, compared with England, Spain and Italy.
Crowds at French league games are neither huge nor particularly vociferous and there were some who had doubts that France would prove a good choice.
The doubters lost by a country mile. It was a cracking tournament, played in full stadiums with passionate spectators. There were 32 countries taking part, including such neglected giants of the game as Jamaica, Iran and Saudi Arabia, new countries in Croatia and old countries in Yugoslavia. Oh, and Scotland were there as well – at least for the group stages.
They opened the tournament and put up a gallant (but losing) performance against the World Champions Brazil in the spanking new Stade de France. They lost to Norway (a certain T A Flo scoring – honest) and were trounced by Morocco. As the old joke goes: “They were home before the postcards.”
England fared a bit better under Glenn Hoddle. There were tantrums before the tournament when an emotional Mag was told he wasn’t going, and there was the surprise selection of a young central defender called Rio Ferdinand. Once again, a nation held its breath in expectation – and once again a nation was disappointed as England went out on penalties to those well loved Argentinians.
The tournament marked the beginning of the end for Hoddle. He placed great faith in a faith healer (well, you would, wouldn’t you) called Eileen Drewery and suggested to players that they consult her as well as the more medically trained staff on hand. As moves go, not the smartest, and he went on to lose his job the next year when he suggested that disabled people were being made to pay for sins in their previous lives.
On the pitch, England went 2-1 up against Argentina with a young, interested and fit Michael Owen (it was a long time ago) scoring a “wonder goal” that marked him as a real talent. Of course it all went wrong when he joined the Mags.
David Beckham’s petulant foot flick at Diego Simeone at the start of the second half saw him sent off and Argentina went on to win on penalties, which meant that now we could concentrate on the football rather than the hype.
And there was some cracking football being played. France had a wonderful squad, a real example of multi-culturism, with the likes of Blanc, Zidane, Vieira and Djorkaeff representing the varying strands of French society. No Cantona as the coach, Aime Jacquet preferred “water carriers” like Didier Deschamps. Presumably, Colin’s all time hero, Eric Roy, was too busy helping his relative, the roast chicken man of Le Lavandou, to bother with the tournament.
The French played some sparkling football. They scored the first goalden (sic) goal, had Zidane sent off and their skipper, Blanc, persisted in snogging Fabian Barthez bald head at every available opportunity.
They had as strong a midfield as you could ever wish to see with Deschamps, Vieira, Petit and Pires balancing each other out and with a young Henry up front, they were more than competent in the scoring department although in Stephane Guivarc’h, they probably had the worst ever forward to win a World Cup Winners medal. He played for the Mags as well …
Most of the team had come up through the elite coaching centre at Clairefontaine, prompting the FA to urgently set in motion an English equivalent. Burton on Trent is expected to open in 2011.
France went on to win despite some wretched cheating and play acting by Slaven Bilic, which saw Blanc sent off and miss the final. Brazil had come through the other half of the draw and were overwhelmed by the host nation in a very one sided final.
It was a well run tournament, England fans behaved themselves in the main, apart from one hiatus in Marseille. It really looked as if the insidious influence of racist groups like the National Front and the BNP had been broken once and for all.
For the winners, it looked as if the constitutional guarantee that all citoyens were treated equally was actually going to be put into practice. The celebrations in Paris gave real hope that those of African descent (sub Saharan and North) and from New Caledonia and the Caribbean would become fully accepted in French society. Many would argue it was a false assumption.
Abiding memories: the emergence of Croatia as real players in Europe; the hysterival reaction to Beckham’s sending off; Laurent Blanc kissing Fabien Barthez’s head; an interesting number of future Sunderland players involved – Thomas Helmer, Claudio Reyna, Torre Andre Flo; Bolo Zenden, Thomas Myrhe and Patrick Mboma. Some quality names there.
Next: where the hell is Seogwipo and Oita? Keane v McCarthy – a pundit speaks; making bacon sandwiches for the lads.
With thanks to “untipografico” for the striking photo of the Eiffel Tour taken a few weeks before France beat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final.