“He’s bigger than the Pope. This World Cup will be all about Ronaldo just as ‘70 was about Pele and ‘86 was about Maradona. Only the almighty God can stop Brazil.”
Those words were uttered by Nigeria’s Taribo West. They were grudgingly accepted by innumerable other rival players heading into the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™. Ronaldo may only have been 21, but he was already a two-time and reigning FIFA World Player of the Year and had hit 204 goals in 237 career appearances.
Furthermore, O Fenômeno was merely the most dazzling star in an exquisite, canary-yellow constellation. Defensively, Taffarel, Aldair and Dunga were among Brazil’s finest-ever players in their respective positions. Offensively, Mario Zagallo had at his disposal swashbuckling wingbacks Cafu and Roberto Carlos, attacking-midfield emperor Rivaldo, and the most expensive player in history in Denilson.
With a number of traditional powers struggling – Czech Republic, Mexico, Norway, Yugoslavia, Chile and Colombia were all in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking’s top ten going into the 16th FIFA World Cup – many felt that if any team could stop the overwhelming favourites, it would be France. The holders versus the hosts was the Final the neutrals craved. Fifteen years ago to this Friday, it was what they got.
The atmosphere inside the Stade de France was electric, and the majority of the 80,000 in attendance were given early cause for optimism as the French, playing in their maiden FIFA World Cup Final, took the game to their illustrious opponents. Stephane Guivarc'h had already flicked one effort just over before, following a feint, a flick, a one-two, a side-step and the cheekiest of nutmegged through-balls from Zinedine Zidane, the Auxerre striker was presented with a glaring chance. Guivarc'h’s touch nevertheless deserted him and, with Junior Baiano bearing down, he poked it wide.
There would, however, be no let-up for Brazil on 27 minutes. Emmanuel Petit whipped in an inswinging corner and Zidane rose above Leonardo to power a downward header into the back of the net from six yards.
Many believed it would stir Brazil into life. However, with holding midfielders Didier Deschamps and Christian Karembeu, and centre-backs Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, preventing the Brazilians getting into their irresistible rhythm, Aime Jacquet's Zidane-inspired side continued to dictate the play. Junior Baiano managed to deflect Emmanuel Petit’s goal-bound volley narrowly wide, before Lilian Thuram executed a quarterback’s pass to send Guivarc'h one-on-one with Taffarel, only for the Brazil No1 to brilliantly push the France No9’s low shot round his post.
Conceding corners was ill-advised for a side whose Achilles heal was an inability to defend dead-balls, and Les Bleus punished this defect on the stroke of half-time. Youri Djorkaeff curled it in right-footed and Zidane, who had never been renowned for scoring headers, powered home his second of the game to make it 2-0.
Brazil had a good spell at the start of the second half, with substitute Denilson causing problems, but Ronaldo remained a virtual spectator. On the almost exclusive occasion the ball did find him, at the back post, he expertly worked himself into a shooting opportunity only for Barthez to gather his fierce, close-range drive.
Guivarc'h then spurned another chance before A Seleção were thrown a lifeline on 68 minutes. Desailly, who momentarily found himself playing as a right-winger, tripped Cafu and was shown a second yellow card and, consequently, a red.
Brazil failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage, though, and in injury time France definitively killed off the contest. Following a Denilson corner, Christophe Dugarry carried the ball from his penalty area into the Brazilian half and spread the ball out left to fellow substitute Patrick Vieira. The 22-year-old’s cushioned first-time pass allowed his Arsenal team-mate Petit to sneak in behind Cafu and slide the ball across Taffarel and into the bottom corner to seal a 3-0 victory.
The FIFA World Cup had been the brainchild of two Frenchman, Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay, exactly 70 years earlier. Now, after Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine and Co had finished third in 1958 and the Michel Platini-inspired carousel twice reached the semi-finals in the 1980s, Les Bleus had finally become the seventh team to lift the Trophy.
“It’s the greatest feeling, we’re world champions,” enthused Zidane. “These fans deserve it – they've been magnificent throughout this tournament. I’ve never been very good with my head, but thankfully I managed to get it right – twice."
Jacquet added: "Zidane has extraordinary gifts. He has an internal vision and can make the ball do whatever he wants. But what sets him apart is his drive and we saw that against Brazil. Heading is not his forte, but he was determined to get to those corners and he did.”
Because he did, a FIFA World Cup that was supposed to belong to Brazil and R9 will perpetually be remembered as the one of France and Zizou.