Like Super Bowl tickets, the tickets for the World Cup semifinal in Saint-Denis (as well as the tickets for the quarterfinal that my brother and I attended at Giants Stadium in 1994) are souvenir tickets, to add to that sense of it having been a really big deal. I absolutely loved them, and kept them both through the years. Even now, admittedly, I take them out every now and then to simply look at them, and appreciate the fact that my brother and I managed to go to such huge events, and in consecutive World Cups, to boot! The two nations that we are citizens of hosted the World Cup tournament back-to-back, which made me feel almost like an experienced aficionado after the semifinal with Croatia!
France wore their blue (home) jerseys for the Final, along with their traditional white shorts and red socks. Brazil wore their distinctive yellow/gold jerseys with blue shorts.
France v. Brasil - Finale - Coupe du monde 1998
12 juillet 1998 - Coupe du Monde - Stade Félix-Bollaert (Lens)
This is it! This is the big game of the wonderful World Cup tournament of 1998! And it was made all the bigger because it features the home team, France, making a first ever appearance in the World Cup Final match, against the historically dominant national team in the sport, Brazil.
My brother and I had gone to see the exciting semifinal against Croatia four days earlier, and we celebrated like everyone else with France's narrow victory.
But now, there was a nervous energy abounding. The farther France managed to go in that tournament, the higher the stakes, and the more pressure everyone felt. All that it would take would be one solid game to produce a victory, whether or not France was favored to win or lose against Brazil. It seemed that everyone felt it. There was a lot of anticipation.
Brazil had won the tournament four times already by that point, and they were easily the most accomplished team in World Cup history. Everyone looked to them as the standard by which everyone else measured themselves, and inevitably found themselves lacking.
By way of comparison, France had come relatively close to the very highest level before. It had reached the semifinal in both 1982 and 1986, during the days of star Michel Platini. It had reached the consolation, third-place game twice in a row during those two tournaments, and even won once. France had also won the Euro in 1984, for the first and only time to that point. Also in 1984, France had won the gold medal at the Olympics.
Yet, despite this fairly impressive resume for the French side, the one thing that they had never done was win a World Cup. Had not even qualified until now for the Final, so this was their big chance.
While my brother and I had enjoyed the luxury of actually attending the semifinal match, we did not have quite so much luck for this game, which we watched on a tiny television inside of my brother's tiny studio apartment in Paris. We had spent much of the day with family, and the son in the family had driven us almost into Paris, dropping us off at the Stade de France many hours before the match itself was to be played. There were already a fair amount of people there, including the media. Admittedly, I envied the people who had managed to score tickets to this biggest of all games. Bigger than the Super Bowl, because this truly is a championship that many people around the world tune in for and watch!
I do not remember any longer how we got back to the apartment, if we took the Paris Metro, or walked in.
What I do remember is the nervousness that I felt, which was shared by the entire country by that point. This was what we were all waiting for, the Final match, that we felt France had earned a berth in, and hoped France would earn a win in.
We watched some of the pregame talk and predictions, then watched the players come out, followed by the national anthems of both Brazil and France. It was stirring to listen to how passionately the crowd sang along to La Marseillaise.
Finally, the time came for the match to begin. Everyone was wondering who would break through first, who would draw first blood in that (presumably) all-important first goal.
France's biggest star, Zinedine Zidane, had endured a relatively bad tournament to that point. His most iconic moment in the tournament to that point had been a rough and, frankly, foolish penalty. It was deserved, because it was entirely unnecessary. Otherwise, he had really not done anything entering that final match to really distinguish himself.
However, that would change in the Final, as he finally broke through and shined incredibly brightly on that day. Zidane broke the scoreless deadlock with a header in the 27th minute, giving France the 1-0 lead, and bringing the 80,000 assembled at the Stade de France, not to mention the rest of the nation, to it's feet, hooting and hollering in excitement. That championship, which had proven so elusive to that point, was closing in, almost within reach now. Zidane had a determined, almost angry expression on his face following that first goal.
When he scored the second goal, also a header, in the extra session of the first half, he looked a lot happier. He grabbed the front of his jersey and started kissing it, before dropping to his knees and celebrating with teammates with embraces. France now led 2-0 at halftime. The championship was now very, very close.
Still, this is Brazil that we are talking about. This was the storied franchise in the sport's history, and France, by comparison, had a history of choking in the biggest games. Nobody was celebrating too loudly just yet, despite the lead.
So, the nervous energy continued, as play resumed in the second half. Brazil had some chances, most notably, or memorably perhaps, when star Ronaldo was within striking position near the goal. But French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez pursued the ball with deep concentration, and was able to catch it, although he crashed with Ronaldo in the process It was a nervous moment, a close call, and there were several throughout the match. Despite holding a 2-0 lead throughout most of the second half, no one was feeling overly confident with such a formidable opponent on the other side. If Brazil scored even one goal, the game would be a lot tighter, and even more tense, in a hurry. Almost everyone in France just wanted the win, for the French side to just hold on.
Hold on they did, at least until the extra time. They did not make it too easy, however. That is never France's way, it seems. Like in the Croatia game, France suddenly found themselves a man short when Marcel Desailly received his second yellow card, which meant a red card. He was ejected from the game, giving Brazil a man advantage, with more than twenty minutes of play left, plus extra session time. Too much time.
Yet, France did have a decent 2-0 lead. All that they needed to do was hang on, not allow Brazil to score a goal to close the margin, and failing that, to especially not allow Brazil to get a second goal, and make things really scary. The French players needed to continue to play tight defense, as they had all tournament long. Just hang on a little bit longer.
They managed to hang on, and the minutes passed. Soon, the regular time session ran out, and there were just a few minutes of extra session left.
By that point, there was a sense that France was destined to win. Barring a miracle by Brazil, France had earned a fairly comfortable 2-0 lead, after all, and Brazil's opportunities were quickly closing.
Brazil was all about offense now, and that is completely understandable. When they received a corner kick late in the extra session, they had all of their men up to attack, which left them vulnerable defensively if they did not score a goal. This proved to be the decisive sequence, when any last lingering doubts about a French win finally subsided. There was no Brazilian goal, and the French players that got the ball raced up the field virtually unopposed, looking to put the final nail on the coffin. There was beautiful passing as a couple of Brazilian players caught up. When the ball reached Emmanuel Petit, he was able to kick the clinching goal into the far corner of the net, scoring to ice the game that would decide it for France.
France 3, Brazil 0. Mere seconds after the Petit goal, the final whistle sounded, and French players celebrated the championship. So did French President Jacques Chirac, and former French star Michel Platini.
So did an entire nation.
But I will discuss the post-game celebrations later. For now, I want to stick with this particular match.
In retrospect, France dominated. At least, statistically they did. Not just in that match, but throughout the entire tournament. They were undefeated, sporting a perfect 7-0-0 record, which nobody else could boast, and which, in fact, few even World Cup champions can boast. No losses, no ties. All wins. They outscored their opponents by a combined 15-2 mark, which again, looks impressive on paper. But when you look at each match individually, you will find that they loaded up on goals for three of those games in particular - against South Africa with a 3-0 win, against Saudi Arabia with a 4-0 win, and finally, against Brazil with another 3-0 win. In the other four games, they only outscored their opponents 5-2, and one of those games was a 0-0 game against Italy that was ultimately decided by penalty kicks. France scraped by with one goal wins against Denmark to clinch their group in the round robin, then a 1-0 Golden Goal win against Paraguay in a very tight first round of elimination contest, and followed up their penalty shootout win over Italy in the quarterfinal with another victory by only one goal in the semifinal against Croatia.
In the Final against Brazil, the 3-0 score suggests a rout, especially when you consider that France held onto the ball for almost two-thirds of the match. Yet, Brazil had almost as many total shots, and even more shots on goal than France did. The two sides were almost equal in terms of fouls committed, and France received far more yellow cards, by a margin of 6 to 1! Plus, they had Desailly's second yellow, which amounted to a red card, giving Brazil that man advantage late in the game, which made a 2-0 lead, which should have felt relatively comfortable, feel like a much tighter game than the score actually indicated. Indeed, it took Petit's clincher for French fans to truly let loose and celebrate a championship.
Yet close or not, France actually did manage to win the championship, and in a convincing, if not exactly dominating, fashion. If France was dominant during that tournament, it feels like it was their defense that achieved the level of dominance that the 1998 France side should be remembered for. They allowed only two goals in those seven games, and only trailed once all tournament long, briefly, in the game that my brother and I attended against Croatia. They tied it up one minute later, and would eventually take the lead, and go on to win that contest.
I suspect that France's defense was the key unit in that World Cup tournament, and they were the deciding factor in what ultimately proved to be the championship - France's first ever (and so far, only) World Cup championship.
But a championship it was, and earn it France did. Now, with the victory well in hand, it was time to celebrate, finally!