I don't know to this day how on earth he managed to score such awesome tickets, but my brother actually got seats for the World Cup semi-final game, to be held on July 8th, back in 1998.
When he offered me the ticket, I jumped on the opportunity.
The thing is, though, it had been nine long years since my previous trip to France. I had still been in high school then - early in high school. It was the summer following my freshman year, and it was the bicentennial of the French Revolution, which meant it had been a huge occasion.
1998 was another huge year for France, as well, as it was hosting the World Cup.
Shortly after I arrived, there would be even more reason why a trip to France in the summer of 1998, specifically, would be very memorable. But I'll get to that.
I knew that I would be going to France, so it was time to save up. That wound up being perhaps the best half year of financial discipline that I have had, before or since. I was very careful, and not only managed to save up some money for the trip, but wiped out a substantial amount of debt, to boot. It almost amazes me to this day that I managed to do that.
In the lead-up to the trip, I was not entirely sure how long I would be gone. Since it had been so long, I wanted it to be for a good duration, and three or four weeks was not out of the question. That was the amount of time that originally was on my mind, I think. But recognizing that it had been nine long years, I figured, why not five weeks? How many times would I get the chance to take five straight weeks? That was how long my trip had been back in 1989, but again, I was just a kid still then. Now, I was a grown man, at least officially. I would have to spend money on food and other necessities, and in the meantime, I would not actually be getting more money. It does not take a skilled mathematician to recognize that this could easily become a recipe for disaster.
Still, my heart got the better of me, and I decided on six weeks. Six weeks in France, staying at my brother's place in Paris.
I would arrive in Paris on the July 7th. Although I knew it would be amazing to be back in France, there actually was little to suggest to me beforehand just how amazing it would be. In fact, it would prove to be one of the most memorable weeks of my life, and for all the right reasons. That is what I am writing about.
The game we were slated to attend was scheduled for the next day - July 8th. Low and behold, France had qualified for the semi-final game. They would be playing Croatia. So, after orienting myself a bit with Paris on the first day and evening, we prepared for the game the next day.
Ir proved to be perhaps the most exciting game that France would be involved with in the entire torunament. That year, France enjoyed a level of dominance that is a rare feat. They played seven matches, and won all seven - a perfect record! In the process, they won the first ever "Golden Goal" game against Paraguay in the second round, and then outlasted Italy in a shootout, to qualify for the semi-final. Croatia had been more of a surprise, but they were a very talented team, and would show it on that evening.
The first half was scoreless, although there were some opportunities on both sides. Soccer can be very intense, because scoring is so important. In a game that is often low-scoring, any great play, and conversely, any mistake, can turn the tide of the game. So, to say the brand new, sparkling Stade de France was intense is an understatement.
There were no goals in the first half, but it would not take long before someone broke through to score in the second. As it turned out, Croatia was the first team to score, off of the magical foot (at least for the '98 tournament) of Davor Šuker in the 46th minute.
Croatia was up, 1-0.
That goal had been made possible largely due to a mistake by French defender Lilian Thuram.
As it turned out, though, he would more than make up for it. And it would not take long.
One minute later, Thuram, a defender and thus not normally a scorer, would himself get a goal to tie up the game, 1-1. The stadium absolutely exploded with excitement!
Both teams really knuckled down now, knowing the stakes. Obviously, neither team wanted to be the one to make that crucial mistake that would cost them a chance at the Final, and possibly the chance at hoisting the FIFA World Cup Trophy. Neither team had been to the Final before, let alone won it.
They battled in the deadlocked game, until France finally broke through in the 69th minute, once again off of the foot of Thuram. I will never forget his dropping to his knees right after the goal, and then placing his hands on the side of his face, as if deep in contemplation. It was a cocky gesture, to be sure, but I'll admit I loved it under those circumstances.
France was now up, 2-1.
But France had a difficult history in World Cup semifinal games, and it seemed that they were incapable of making things easier on themselves. Laurent Blanc collected a red card for elbowing Slaven Bilic. it was a rather BS call, and Bilic would later apologize to Blanc after the game. It cost Blanc a chance to play in the World Cup Final,
After Blanc received the red card, France only had 10 men on the field. With the numerical advantage, Croatia pressed hard to tie the game up. Ultimately, however, it was France's day, and they held them off to clinch the win, and their first ever appearance in the World Cup Final! Things were getting very exciting!
My brother and i walked back from the Stade de France (it is within walking distance of where he lived), and enjoyed the celebrations on the streets. It all seemed so overwhelming, but it would be virtually nothing compared to what Paris would be like four nights later, when French people all over the country celebrated the Wold Cup win!
Before then, however, there was one huge event! We went to see the Three Tenors at the Champs de Mars (in front of the Eiffel Tower) in a free concert that they gave on the 10th. It was really cool, although also very packed, to the point that it was a bit loud and detracted a bit from the concert.
Then, it was time for the Final. Brazil had defeated the Netherlands in their semifinal, and most experts believed that they would defeat France. Brazil is the ultimate in this sport, right?
But France seemed to be holding their own, keeping Brazil off the scoreboard. That was pretty good itself, but when France scored in the 27 minute off a header by Zinedine Zidane, the biggest star on the French team, the excitement was palpable. France was beating Brazil in the World Cup Final, 1-0!
Could they hold on, though?
Perhaps in retrospect, it began to feel like France's destiny when Zidane scored again in the 45th minute, just before the halftime break, to go up 2-0. It must have been extremely demoralizing for Brazil to allow that just before the break.
Still, it was Brazil, and they are so good. They can just explode and score several goals at any moment, and everyone was still nervous, knowing that it was imperative that France hold on to the momentum.
The most important thing that France did in the second half was smother Brazil's normally lethal attack, keeping them scoreless. Time was growing short, and the excitement was really building now.
Then, regulation ended, and it was extra time. It would take a miracle now for Brazil to win, but you don't count you chickens before they hatch, right?
But when Emmanuel Petit got the ball deep, very close to the Brazil goal, and then beat goaltender Cláudio Taffarel, it clinched the trmendous win! France was up, 3-0. Moments later, the ref ble the whistle, and the final outcome was official. France had won a resounding victory over Brazil, 3-0!
France were World Champions!
We went out to celebrate, and the streets were just filled with people celebrating! They said it was the biggest party that Paris had seen since the Liberation, and I can beieve it! People were climbing lamp posts, while others were kicking balls around, bouncing them off of cars. Almost all the cars were honking, and some people would just go on the hoods of strangers, and everyone was all smiles on that night. It was just unbelievable!
People were chanting "On est les champions!", and generally in great cheer.
The party went onto the wee hours. my brother and I called it a day maybe around 3 or 4 in the morning, but the party went on. After going to bed, I remember waking up briefly around 7am, and hearing some honking horns! It was wild!
The party atmosphere continued through the next two days, until July 14th, which is Bastille Day. That is France's national holiday, not dissimilar to July 4th in the United States, or Canada Day on July 1st. We went up on Montmartre hill, to get a panoramic view of the fireworks. we had an opportunity to see Jean Michel Jarre give another free concert at the Champs de Mars. From the looks of it from the distance that we were at, it really looked spectacular!
Of course, like returned to normal, more or less, afterwards. And I was in Paris for another month and change, and it was amazing.
Yet, that first week back, from the 7th (the day I arrived) until Bastille Day on the 14th, was one of the most amazing weeks that I have ever experienced!
There obviously other really cool things about that trip to France. We even had a chance to watch the Tour de France when it concluded in Paris. All it would have taken is the will, and then a Metro ride down to the Champs-Elysees, and to watch. But for whatever the reason, we did not go.
My brother and I were just talking about that not long ago, and I expressed my regret at not having capitalized in 1998. He told me there would still be plenty of opportunities.
He's most likely right. But I just went to Europe for the first time in over thirteen years, and still have not yet been back to France in now well over thirteen years. Back in 1998, it was my first trip to France in nine years. So, opportunities may come indeed, but they have not exactly been forthcoming as of late.
Still, all in all, I remember that trip fondly. In particular, that first week, which remains my fondest sports related memory of all time. I would not exchange that sports memory for any other!
And it all happened fifteen years ago today!