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Apr 25, 2006

World Cup 1998 - Hosts France

After a sixty-year gap, the World Cup returned to its country of birth. Though the competition had been expanded to a rather bloated 32 teams, the return to France was to prove a great success.

Brazil were favourites, with striker Ronaldo, a non-playing sub in 1994, at the peak of his powers. Improbable pace, skill and goalscoring made him football's hottest property and richest player, endorsed by a whole host of companies.

Denied the services of an injured Romario, Ronaldo would have to bear the striking burden. In the opening game, the holders overcame Scotland with some difficulty before soundly beating Morocco 3-0.

In the third group game they took the lead late on against the dour Norwegians but were shocked by a late surge. Tore Andre Flo and a Rekdal penalty landed Brazil with their first opening round defeat since 1966.

The hosts made short work of their group, beating South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the Danes. But the real story was Zidane's dismissal against the Saudis, where the Mexican referee red-carded him for stamping out at Fuad Amin. The French would hence be without their playmaker for their second round match.

The Italians, for whom Roberto Baggio was making a welcome return, made short work of their group despite an opening draw with Chile, after Lazio import Marcelo Salas scored two great goals. Striker Christian Vieri was outstanding for Italy in all three games.

Highest profile casualties were Spain, who lost in 3-2 thriller to Nigeria and could only draw 0-0 with Paraguay. Despite beating a Bulgarian side well past its sell-by-date 6-1 in the final game, it was yet another tale of underachievement for the Spaniards.

Perhaps the most enticing fixture in the first round was the group match between USA and Iran. Diplomatic differences were put aside before the game when the players exchanged flowers and posed for a joint team picture.

Once the game had started Iran outplayed the Americans and were worthy 2-1 winners. Both teams were also-rans in a group dominated by Germany and Yugoslavia.

Argentina made as good a start to the tournament as they had in 1994. With Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega impressive they looked like a side that England would have preferred to avoid in the second round.

As penance for a late Graeme Le Saux mistake against Romania, England had come second in their group. But in that famous second round game in St Etienne they matched the Argentinians, even after having Beckham dismissed for his petulant kick at Simeone. Despite Owen's great goal England exited stage left after another penalty shoot-out loss.

Nigeria, who had lit up the first round with enterprising football from the likes of Kanu, Oliseh and Okocha, capitulated inexpicably to Denmark, who for once in a major tournament had both Laudrup brothers in tandem.

Italy knocked out Norway in a dull game lit up by a great run and goal by Christian Vieri. Brazil overpowered Chile with Ronaldo at his best while Holland beat Yugoslavia by virtue of a 91st-minute winner from Edgar Davids.

France, struggling without the cutting edge of Zidane, were forced to make history when Laurent Blanc scored the first-ever World Cup extra-time 'Golden Goal' against Paraguay.

Their reward was a date with the Italians. Perhaps due to many of the Frenchmen playing for clubs in Italy the two sides cancelled each other out and the game fizzled out, with the end result being the Italians' exit from their third succesive World Cup on penalties.

While Roberto Baggio was able to bury the ghost of the Pasadena Rose Bowl, this time it was Luigi Di Biagio who was the unfortunate penalty misser.

Germany, who had shown signs of fallibility all tournament, collapsed in amazing style against Croatia, playing in their first World Cup. After having defender Christian Woerns sent-off the Germans fell behind to a great strike from Robert Jarni and just could not get back into the game. Late goals from Davor Suker and Goran Vlaovic were no more than the Croats deserved.

The remaining quarter-finals were classics. Brazil held off the Danes in a memorable game in Nantes with two goals from Rivaldo helping them to a narrow 3-2 win.

In Marseille's Stade Velodrome Argentina and Holland served up a feast. An early exchange of goals from Kluivert and Claudio Lopez led to an even match of flowing football.

But, in keeping with an unhappy tradition, Argentina then pressed the self-destruct button as Ortega was dismissed for headbutting the chin of Holland keeper Edwin Van Der Sar.

And just when the game seemed destined for extra-time, Dennis Bergkamp produced a goal that would grace any stage. Controlling a long pass instantly in the air, he wrongfooted a defender and prodded it with the outside of his boot into the roof of the net. Keeper Carlos Roa could do nothing.

Marseille hosted the Dutch once more as they faced Brazil in the semi-final. After Ronaldo had scored a typical goal just after half-time, Brazil seemed to have a place in the final in their grasp.

But Patrick Kluivert fired in three minutes from time. Again the Golden Goal rule restricted both sides' ambitions and it was a penalty shoot-out once more.

Brazil converted all four but Phillipe Cocu and Ronald De Boer's misses put the favourites in the final.

There they would meet the hosts, who could thank defender Lilian Thuram's sudden discovery of a scoring touch when the game seemed to be turning towards Croatia. The Croats, for whom Davor Suker finished as the tournament's top scorer, satisfied themselves with a win in the third place play-off over Holland.

The furore that blew up before the final is perhaps the biggest scandal in World Cup history and the true facts are yet to be revealed. When the teams for the match at Stade De France were announced, Ronaldo was missing from the team-sheet with Edmundo in his place.

There was speculation his ailing knee had finally given out but then a bizarre story emerged. Ronaldo had had some form of fit while sleeping in his hotel room.

Roberto Carlos had alerted doctors and worries over damage his brain had led to his omission from the team-sheet. But when the teams lined up, a rather nervous Ronaldo was there - at least in body.

Rumours persist that he had been given a sedative by doctors and that team sponsor Nike, for whom Ronaldo was their leading endorsed player, had forced his inclusion.

Whatever the truth, his zombiefied performance reflected a young man in turmoil who did not want to be playing.

Without him Brazil looked lost and fell to a France side empowered by a rush of football fervour from the home country. Despite the efforts of hapless striker Stephane Guivarc'h the French overpowered Brazil.

Even without Laurent Blanc, suspended following a red card after a terrible piece of play-acting by Slaven Bilic in the semi-final, the defence easily smothered what few Brazilian attacks there were.

Zidane, who had improved steadily as the tournament went on, reached a crescendo when, unmarked on both occasions, he headed in two identical goals from Emmanuel Petit corners.

And though pivotal defender Marcel Desailly was sent-off for a horrible foul on Cafu in the 75th minute, France finished the stronger, eventually sealing their win with a breakaway goal from Petit.

Brazil had been thrashed, their dreams of a fifth World Cup perhaps dying in Ronaldo's hotel room but few could argue with the validity of France as winners.

Skipper Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy, fans partied on the Champs Elysees and for once cycling became France's second favourite sport.