Allez les Bleus! The story of France's 1998 World Cup triumph
On July 12, 1998, the France national team created history by winning the country's first -- and, to date, only -- World Cup. It was one of the most memorable and intense moments the nation had ever experienced and transcended football; this triumph had social repercussions and brought a sense of unity that, arguably, had only previously come about because of war.
Moreover, as some of its protagonists explain, there is a remarkable nature to the story of France's glory, given the perception held of the team in the years leading up to the tournament.
Quotations given in French or Portuguese have been translated into English.
Staying united against the doubters
In the summer of 1994, Aime Jacquet, a respected coach who had spent the previous two years as assistant to then-head coach Gerard Houllier, took over as manager of a France side in crisis.
Les Bleus had missed that year's World Cup in the United States by virtue of a disastrous end to their qualification campaign. Needing just one point to guarantee a place, they managed to lose their last two games at home; both Israel and Bulgaria clinched victory with last-minute goals.
The trauma was huge for France and necessitated a rebuild ahead of the World Cup it would host four years later. But, despite a run to the semifinals at the 1996 European Championship in England, support for Jacquet and his team was lukewarm at best, especially in the media.
Robert Pires (former France winger and 1998 World Cup winner): We knew that [newspaper] L'Equipe had an agenda against Aime Jacquet. They didn't think that he was good enough. They questioned everything he did, all his choices, all his tactics. It became really nasty and personal too. We were all behind the manager from day one but you could feel how negative the atmosphere was around the team. It very much felt like it was us against the world.
Philippe Tournon (France press officer in 1998): [L'Equipe] very quickly adopted an anti-Jacquet position. They never believed in him. The good results at the 1996 Euros were not enough. People didn't get on board with what Jacquet wanted to do. He was working hard to find the best team for the World Cup at home. People should have let him work. Instead, he was always criticised. L'Equipe newspaper is such a strong leader of opinions. They were dictating the agenda against him and it was tough, especially in the run-up to the World Cup as performances were not great and there were a lot of doubts about the team's potential and ability to win the whole thing.
Pires: For me, the key part of the unity and solidarity the players and the staff created happened in December 1997 when Jacquet organised a get-together in Tignes, the ski resort in the Alps, for the players and their families for Christmas. The staff were there as well. It was so lovely. Everyone was chilled and enjoying the break. Jacquet had a big meeting with the players and long chats with the leaders; the likes of Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps. And he gave them a plan between then and the World Cup. He said to them: "This is how I work, this is what I will do, where we are going together." And he finished by saying: "We will do something huge in this World Cup." Now, we knew the players were on board. He convinced us to give everything for him, to believe in him and to follow him.
Bixente Lizarazu (former France defender and 1998 World Cup winner): Jacquet took all the criticism for him but he made sure that they didn't really affect us. It was a masterclass from him. He wanted to protect us so much. He would have done anything for us to stay focused and confident. He never said a word. He could have used the critics to make us more determined or angry or to get revenge. He could have said: "Look, they don't believe in you so go out there and show them that they are wrong." But he didn't. He was so dignified. And also, he had a path and a plan for us and that was not part of it. So instead, he put us, along with his staff, in a bubble. There was a lot of serenity. We were in Clairefontaine, far from everything. We didn't care about the outside world. We only focused on ourselves. We didn't even feel any pressure. We were just so ready to get there and prepare the competition in the best way possible. We all wanted to be at our best when it started.
Tournon: We were in our bubble. We didn't really look at what people were saying in the media, in the press. We had our lives and we were all focused on the competition and they had their focus. Jacquet had prepared everything so the players could only think about the football and the World Cup.
Stephane Guivarc'h (former France striker and 1998 World Cup winner): The results had not been good enough before the start of the tournament. Even without reading all the articles or listening to all the debates about the team, we knew what people thought. But it is part of the job and criticism always makes you better. All the players were used to the pressure though, especially the leaders. When you see Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps or Marcel Desailly stay calm, be focused, work hard at training, you just want to follow them and be at their level.
Guivarc'h: We knew that we had to start with style and with a win. We could not afford to not do this because then the critics would have been right. Things would have turned quite ugly quite quickly. It was not easy to manage but we did. It was the perfect start.
France began the group stage with a 3-0, pressure-relieving victory against South Africa in Marseille and swept into the knockout rounds on the back of three wins, with nine goals scored. However, there were bigger tests to come and breaks of good fortune, as well as home support, would be needed.
Pires: You can have all the talent in the world, the best players, good chemistry, being at home or any other advantages you can think of, but you will always need a bit of luck to win big trophies.
Lizarazu: As the competition went on, we could all feel that something was happening and that we were always on the right end of things. You don't say it, probably because you are too scared to jinx it. But each and everyone of us felt it. You can see it as a player. And it is not just a goal but also a block, a rebound in your favour, a miss by the opposition. There were signs that things were going our way. The first game, the group stages and then there is always something going for us in the knockout stages: Laurent Blanc's golden goal in the last 16 in extra-time against Paraguay, the penalty shootout in the quarter against Italy, Lilian Thuram and his brace in the semis against Croatia. The final even felt like an easy game because we felt so strong and so unstoppable. We could feel how strong we were, especially defensively and how tough we were to play against, but you still need a little bit of luck and help that makes you do it.
Pires: We worked so hard for this and you always reap what you sow. In French we say that all the planets aligned. As players and staff, we had an incredible mental strength. We were ready for anything that could be thrown at us. And we had an answer for everything. The cohesion in the group was marvellous. Maybe the gods of football were really behind us!
Tournon: Deschamps was not happy with the lack of support we got at the beginning of the competition. He wanted more noise, more passion. He said there were too many corporate fans in their suits and ties in the stands. We realised that the country was really behind us when we travelled from our HQ in Clairefontaine, 45 minutes south of Paris, to Lens, in the north of the country, for the last-16 match against Paraguay. We got there by coach and all through the way, we saw hundreds of people on the roads, in their car, waving at us, encouraging us. Before that, we didn't have much contact with the outside world. But on that day, it felt like a dream. All those people were with us, behind us. Once we got there, it was incredible. After the win, it was even better. It was phenomenal. The players felt the support, the warmth, the bond.
Thuram goes from villain to hero
Pires: [In the semifinal, Lillian Thuram] makes a mistake by covering Davor Suker on [Aljosa] Asanovic's pass on [Croatia's] goal. We are 1-0 down and we can see that "Tutu" is not happy. Then he goes and scores two goals, pretty much out of nowhere and out of nothing to win us the game and to send us into the final! What were the odds on that? It was incredible. He always used to say that when he was in front of goal, he never knew where to shoot because he thought the keeper was always taking too much room in the goal! So for him to score twice in a World Cup semifinal was just incredible. He always used to eat a bowl full of salad every evening during the World Cup. So we all thought the salad was the secret of his success. So between the semifinal and the final we all ate a bowl of salad!
Guivarc'h: When you feel strong and dominant then you often have a bit of luck going your way. You always say that big teams and big clubs always have a bit of luck. We felt so strong as a squad that over time something went our way, it made us even stronger. And you get to a point where you know that pretty much nothing can happen to you, where you feel so close to the top. We knew that big games were always won on details. For me, there was a special force over us.
Ronaldo drama dominates final build-up
France went into the final on the crest of a wave and buoyed by the support of a fervent nation, but Jacquet's side were underdogs against holders Brazil. However, the hours before the game saw a saga develop that changed things and, even to this day, has many shaking their heads in wonder.
Cesar Sampaio (former Brazil midfielder and 1998 World Cup finalist): On the afternoon of the final, at around 2 p.m., I hear Roberto Carlos shouting in the hallway saying that Ronaldo is feeling ill. I get into his room with Edmundo and what I can see is shocking. Ronaldo's head is purple, he is struggling to breathe, drooling and all his muscles are contracted. I remember seeing my dad is a similar state after he had a seizure in the past. The rest of the team then arrived and the doctors too. They gave Ronaldo a sedative and he managed to calm down and sleep.
Pires: It is only by the time we were on our way to the Stade de France that someone told me that Ronaldo had a problem and he might not play. But it was too late. Whether he would play or not would not change anything in our approach or game plan. We actually wanted him to play. We felt so ready and so strong that we were ready for anything.
Sampaio: Usually we put a lot of samba music on the bus but [on the way to the stadium], it was silence. Everyone was so worried as he was the best player on our team. A few minutes before the game, with everyone dressed and ready, Ronaldo arrived in the dressing room saying: "I am going to play; the exams didn't show anything. I want to play; this could be my last World Cup."
Pires: We had Franck Leboeuf playing at the back for us as Laurent Blanc was suspended. Frankie was so up for it; he would have faced anyone! Now with hindsight, you could say that Brazil and the players were affected by what happened to Ronaldo. But even if he had been 100 percent fit, we were so confident we would win that he would not have made a difference for us.
Sampaio: We were so shaken on the pitch and worried about Ronaldo. We thought he could die on the pitch. We felt he risked his life in the final. We were not even at 50 percent of the ability we showed earlier in the tournament in the final.
Zidane steps up, finally
The 1998 World Cup might be remembered by many as Zinedine Zidane's tournament and it is true that his two goals against Brazil proved decisive in the final but, prior to that game, the talismanic midfielder had had a mixed time.
Tournon: After his red card against Saudi Arabia in the group stages, [Zidane] was mortified. It was a silly incident and he knew he made a huge mistake. During the two matches he was banned, he was the team's No. 1 fan.
Pires: I think he really wanted to redeem himself after his red card. He knew he made a mistake but he also wanted to do more in the final than he did in the previous rounds.
Guivarc'h: [Zidane] was our best player by a mile, probably the best player France have ever had and we always knew he had that in him. You knew that if someone could win us the World Cup, it was him. Until the final, it is true that he hadn't been at his total best in the tournament. He was one of the reasons why we were strong but because he was part of the collective, not because of his individual brilliance. He was born to deliver trophies and happiness to people and to win big games. When it mattered, in the game that mattered the most, he guided the team to victory.
Lizarazu: The collective strength of this team made the difference. "Zizou" was part of it and he had a big part to play in it. But it was us as a team. We beat every challenge and obstacle together. We can't forget that we found an answer to all our issues: When Zizou was suspended for two games, when Laurent Blanc was suspended for the final and Franck Leboeuf came in and did a great job. All the younger players like Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet played their part too. However, we needed [Zidane] to win the biggest game of all. And he did.
Pires: Big games belong to big players. There is no bigger game than a World Cup final so it was his stage. That's where he wanted to shine and he did just that. Aime Jacquet saw a weakness on defending set pieces from Brazil. He told Zizou to go at the near post and that the Brazilians didn't jump on corners. That's the story of those two headers.
A win for all of France
Victoire! The final whistle was the signal for millions of ecstatic people to pour into streets throughout France. For those directly involved, the effect of what they had achieved took some time to sink in but, when it did, they realised the magnitude of the victory went beyond football.
The team became known as "la France black-blanc-beur" -- the black-white-north African France -- due to its range of ethnicities: Desailly was born in Ghana and Patrick Vieira in Senegal, for example, while Lizarazu and Deschamps were from the French Basque Country and Emmanuel Petit came from Normandy. Zidane's parents came from Algeria, Pires' mum came from Spain, his dad from Portugal, Thierry Henry's family was from Guadeloupe in the French West Indies and Youri Djorkaeff's background was Armenian.
Tournon: It was surreal. Between July 12 at 23:00 and July 14 at around 15:00, when we left the parade and the reception at l'Elysee [the presidential palace in Paris], we were on another planet. We didn't realise what had just happened. We are world champions but the country is feeling much more than that. After the final, we went back to Clairefontaine and then it was wild. One million people on the Champs Elysees for the parade, the whole of France in the streets in the rest of the country celebrating. We could not believe it. It felt like a dream.
Lizarazu: You have no idea. You are in the moment, you have just won the World Cup. You are still in your bubble in a way. And then you see the madness. It was just crazy on the Champs Elysees. For the next six months, people were hysterical. We brought them happiness and they needed it. Even when life went back to normal a few months after the final, you could still feel the atmosphere was special all around the country. There was this joy, this unity. We unified the country in many ways. What made the difference is what we represented for French people. We were more than just football players. We were like them. We all came from different origins, different backgrounds but we won as a team because we worked together, we had solidarity, we cared about each other, we looked after each other. We showed the way and people felt that they could do the same in their own life and in their own world.
Guivarc'h: The impact on the country was so special because it became far more than just a game of football. It became a statement socially. For the first time, French people of all origins had something in common, their football team. They could celebrate all together; enjoy life as a society all together. Apart from the end of World War II and the liberation of the country, nothing has ever brought the country together like this. It was so beautiful to see. It was only sport and football but it did so much. It was so powerful. With hindsight, you realise what you have done for your country.
Pires: You think of yourself as a football player, which is what you are. But by winning the World Cup at home in 1998, we achieved much more. For a period of time, we gave people not just happiness but hope as well. We gave belief that nothing was impossible. We gave them faith and confidence in themselves. We showed that wherever you came from, you could be successful and do it with people whose stories were different to yours. It changed the mentality and gave new perspectives to some people who needed it. The message of this World Cup triumph was so powerful.
Lizarazu: I always say that this World Cup triumph is like a glass of great French wine. When you drink it, you appreciate the taste, the sweetness of it and it brings you happiness. Every French person, when they think about 1998, their face lights up and the happiness comes.
Tournon: Even today, Aime Jacquet is still stopped in the streets by people telling him how much joy and happiness he gave them in 1998. It took some time but then you realise how unbelievable it all was.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.