No.10: Zinedine Zidane The Man For France, Mystery Surrounds Ronaldo (France, 1998)
As a soccer player, can anything possibly top winning a World Cup in front of your supporters? Having dealt with the pressure, the expectation and the hyperbole that grips a host nation, to actually sample glory at the end must be an enormously satisfying and incomparably proud feeling.
Teams have dealt with this kind of pressure in a variety of different ways. Brazil should have won it in 1950, but they crumbled under weight of a nations dream in the Maracana. England did it in 1966, but that was thanks to a stunning individual performance in the final.
In 1998, it was the turn of the French to try and cope with this frenzy of fandom. But they started the tournament off superbly, building up some superb momentum. Aime Jacquet’s team had a marvelous blend of seasoned international veterans and vibrant, improving youngsters in his squad, and they steamrollered through the group stages with three consecutive wins.
They found the knockout phases a little more tricky, though. Laurent Blanc netted a golden goal to send Les Bleus through against Paraguay in the last-16, before a penalty shootout win over Italy in the quarter-finals put France into the last-four against Croatia.
There, they battled back from a goal down to win 2-1, thanks to a brace from defender Lilian Thuram. Blanc was controversially sent off late on however, meaning the he’d miss the final.
France were to meet the favorites Brazil in the final, where they were set to come up against the standout player in the tournament, Ronaldo. But there was confusion as to whether or not the Brazilian would be playing in the build-up to the game. He was left off the official team sheet initially, but did eventually take to the field.
But there was to be another hero crowned that night, and he was the man donning the No.10 in the blue of France:
What happened next?
Zidane scored two headers to give the French their first ever World Cup triumph. But it was not only his winning goals that caught the eye, as the Juventus man produced a performance of grace and purpose in his country’s biggest ever match.
As for Ronaldo, it transpired that he had suffered a convulsive fit the night before the game. He missed a couple of big chances for Brazil and was clear nowhere near his sparkling best. For him and his teammates, it was a case of what might have been.
The win for France looked set to pave the way for an era of dominance, an opinion given more clout when they won the European Championships in 2000. But an inability to integrate young talent into the side saw the French crumble when defending their crown in 2002.
As it turned out, Ronaldo and Zidane would go on to experience a reversal of fortunes in the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals respectively. But for Zidane and the French people, it’ll never get better than it did in Saint-Denis 16 years ago.
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