The last World Cup of the 20th century saw France become the third country to host the tournament twice, following Italy and Mexico and adding to their 1938 edition. For the second competition in a row, Morocco narrowly missed out on winning the rights to host. 1998 also saw the tournament expanded for the first time since 1982, with a further eight qualification places afforded, bringing the total involved to 32. The expansion provided two further places for AFC/OFC subject to a playoff, two for CAF, two for UEFA and one each for CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, giving the tournament a face-lift as more debutants were afforded a place, alongside a cluster of sides that had failed to qualify for the previous decade. Three of those sides making their first appearance were drawn in the same group; Croatia, qualifying at the first time of asking following their independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 – the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia would make their final appearance at the World Cup in France before the nation changed their name to Serbia and Montenegro in 2003; Japan, having recovered from The Agony in Doha of 1993, arrived for their debut having seen off Iran for the third automatic place; and Jamaica, who edged out Costa Rica in The Hex despite finishing qualification with a goal difference of -5. South Africa, the final newbies, were rewarded with a place in France’s group, while Chile, Tunisia, Iran, Paraguay and Denmark all returned after long absences. 1994’s third placed side Sweden were the biggest miss from the tournament, as well as two time winners Uruguay and serial contestants Russia.
Holders and favourites Brazil kicked off the tournament on a sunny afternoon in Saint-Denis, with an unusually enjoyable opening game against Scotland. The Scots, no strangers to combining heroic failure with abject incompetence, found themselves twenty minutes from securing a creditable draw after a John Collins penalty had cancelled out Cesar Sampaio’s opener, but confusion in the Scotland penalty area in the 74th minute saw Roberto Carlos’ cross chested into his own net by Celtic’s Tommy Boyd, and the Tartan Army’s efforts went unrewarded. Brazil would go on to top the group after a comfortable 3-0 victory over Morocco in which Ronaldo announced himself on the world stage, while Scotland finished bottom, humbled by the Moroccans in the final game. Norway nipped into second spot thanks to a dramatic win against the holders. A 31 year old Roberto Baggio had enjoyed an Indian Summer with Bologna in the 1997/98 season, and subsequently found himself back in the Italy side under Cesare Maldini after an extended absence. In the Azzurri’s opening game, Il Divin Codino was afforded the opportunity to bury some of the ghosts of Pasedena with a late penalty against Chile to secure a draw, and the uncharacteristically expansive Italians eventually topped the group above their South American counterparts, with Cameroon and Austria providing little competition.
Hosts France made short shrift of Group C, with their team of multicultural superstars showing they weren’t just at the tournament to put on a spread. Back to back batterings of South Africa and Saudi Arabia were topped off with a tight win over Denmark, who joined Aime Jacquet’s side in the second round. The biggest shock of the group stage arrived in Group D, as perennial tournament dark horses Spain were humbled by a classy Nigeria side, who’d bizarrely entered the tournament as the lowest ranked team. With the Super Eagles’ progress in the second round secured with a narrow win over Bulgaria, their carefree approach to the final game against Paraguay meant that Spain’s fate was out of their own hands. A 6-1 win for Raul and co. against a diminished Bulgarian side was not enough, and Paraguay took second spot in the group at their expense. Netherlands and Belgium met again at the group stage, and though they showed only rare flashes of their obvious brilliance, the men in orange topped the group. Belgium, a fading force compared to the side in ’86, were beaten to second place by Mexico. England endured a typically English journey through Group G, with comfortable wins over Tunisia and Colombia sandwiching a defeat to Romania which left Glenn Hoddle’s team in second place and fated to meet the winners of Group H – the one with all the first-timers (and Argentina). Gabriel Batitstuta had a field day against Jamaica, and Daniel Passarella’s side didn’t concede a goal as they marched into a meeting with England. Croatia, with six points, finished second. The second round line-up was completed by Germany and Yugoslavia, though it was the other two sides in their group that provoked the biggest conversation of the tournament’s opening week.
The World Cup had done politics before. The meeting between East and West Germany in 1974 springs to mind, while the tournaments played out in front of a fascist landscape in the 1930s leave indelible prints on the competition, but when the United States and Iran were drawn together in the same group for France 98, there were more than a few sharp intakes of breath. American-Iranian relations had been fragile since the 1979 Revolution, where the US backed Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini and the country banished the monarchy to become an Islamic Republic. Almost two decades of conflict followed, with Ronald Reagan’s administration playing a huge part in arming Iraq ahead of the war between Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah. By 1995, trade between Iran and the US had begun to grow again, but Bill Clinton quickly imposed a trade embargo with the Middle Eastern country, fanning the flames of ill-feeling between the two countries once again. A month after the World Cup draw, Iran’s newly elected President Mohammad Khatami called for the rebuilding of relations between Iran and the US, though how much impact the spectre of the two sides meeting each other in the World Cup had on that decision isn’t clear.
By the time the game had rolled around, peace was very much on the agenda. Ahead of the match both sides swapped tokens of reconciliation, and the twenty-two players posed for photos before kick-off. There were protests in the ground – Mujahedin Khalq, an Iraqi terrorist group funded by Hussein, purchased 7,000 tickets and travelled in the hope of destabilizing the Iranian regime, but the broadcasters were wise to their presence and were able to avoid filming them. While the pre-match atmosphere remained convivial, the mood in the stadium changed on the first whistle, with the Iranian players in particular looking psyched up and determined to get a result. Five minutes before half-time Hamid Estili gave Team Melli the lead, and despite increasing pressure from the US in the second half, Iran broke late on and diminutive playmaker Mehdi Mahdavikia sealed an historic win, firing past Kasey Keller. The game changed the relationship between the two countries, and in 2000 the two sides arranged the first ever international friendly meeting, which ended in a draw. Though neither team made it out of the group, the game between Iran and the United States was once of the standout moments of the tournament; a reminder of the healing power of football.
The standout game of the second round pitted England against Argentina in what many were unfortunately dubbing a ‘grudge match’ following Diego Maradona’s misdemeanor in Mexico, but it would be the South Americans that emerged victorious again in a pulsating game. Michael Owen’s wondergoal, David Beckham’s sending off, and two missed penalties only tell half the story of the match, but ultimately England would rue their luck at a World Cup. France, through to the quarter-finals thanks to the first ever Golden Goal in a World Cup would see off Italy on penalties, as Roberto Baggio converted in the shootout only for Demetrio Albertini and Luigi Di Biagio to miss. A Rivaldo-inspired Brazil saw off the Laudrups and Denmark, while Dennis Bergkamp scored the goal of the tournament in the last minute of the Netherlands’ tie with Argentina to send the Dutch through to the semis. Germany, however, would be unceremoniously dumped out by an irresistible Croatia side who, smelling blood from the off, took full advantage of the Germans’ aging squad, and ran out deserved 3-0 winners.
Two entertaining semi-finals paved the way for the hosts to face the holders at the Stade de France in the final, as Lilian Thuram scored twice to bring France back from behind against Croatia, after Laurent Blanc had been questionably sent off for raising his hands to Slaven Bilic’s face. In Marseille, Patrick Kluivert scored a late equaliser for the Netherlands to take Brazil to extra time and ultimately penalties, but the Dutch would blink first, as Philip Cocu and Ronald De Boer both missed from the spot. Having spent the tournament playing fearsome attacking football, Brazil were understandably the favourites to lift the trophy again come July 12th, but in the hours leading up to the game star player Ronaldo suffered a mysterious fit and, initially, was ruled out of the game. After much toing and froing, and amidst rumours of sponsor interference, Ronaldo finally took his place in Brazil’s starting line-up, but spent the final looking a shadow of the player that had plundered four goals already in the tournament. With their key man out of sorts, Brazil found themselves at the mercy of France, and talisman Zinedine Zidane was in no mood to take prisoners. Two identical headers in the first half put the hosts in full control of the game, and despite having Marcel Desailly sent off, France broke in stoppage time for Emmanuel Petit to put the icing on the cake and secure the nation’s first World Cup.
France’s win was a triumph for multiculturalism, with much of the squad made of up of first and second generation immigrants, while the tournament as a whole was considered a success, played in the right spirit and producing enjoyable football, if lacking a little pizzazz of 1994. Now, it was on to the 21st Century, and a new dawn…