On paper, France retained one of the strongest teams in Europe: Fabien Barthez from Olympique Marseille, the veterans Patrick Vieira and Lilliam Thuram from Juventus Chelsea’s Claude Makalele and William Gallas, Arsenal’s prolific goal-machine Thierry Henry, Bayern Munich’s Willy Sagnol, as well as Olympique Marseille’s talented Frank Ribery.
The star of the ageing team was undoubtedly Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane, three time FIFA World Player of the year (1998, 2000, 2003). He had announced his retirement from the national team in 2004, but in the face of France’s meagre qualifying campaign had returned in 2005, and had captained the team to qualify.
It was indeed a team to be feared, but they remained unconvincing.
In the opening matches France had been poor to say the least: they had opened with 0-0 against Switzerland and 1-1 against South Corea, before a 2-0 victory against Togo had put them through to the last-16 against Spain. The Spaniards had been outstanding in the first round, and were looking to defeat the shaky French. But in this match the French players stepped up a gear, showing that they were indeed a team to be reckoned with, and won 3-1.
In the quarter-finals they were to face the defending world champions of Brazil.
Brazil had, as always, entered the tournament as huge favourites. The team looked at least as good as the winning side of 2002, with Ronaldo continuing from where he had left off in 2002, and complemented by FC Barcelona’s Ronaldinho, AC Milan’s Kaka, Inter Milan’s Adriano, Bayern Munich’s Ze Roberto, as well as Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos and the veteran captain Cafú, from AS Roma.
Brazil had indeed also looked awesome: in the first round they had swept aside all opposition, defeating Croatia, Australia and Japan. In the last-16 they had crushed a naive Ghanaian side 3-0, in a match where Ronaldo had become the most scoring player ever in World Cup history by scoring his 15th world cup goal in the match against Ghana, thus passing Gerd Müller’s record of 14 goals. Brazil were now huge favourites against the French in the quarter-final, in what some were touting to be revenge for the 1998 World Cup final where France had crushed Brazil.
It was to be no revenge, and if anything, Brazil played an even worse match than in 1998: had it been a stronger French side, the score might have been as bad.
That said, Zinedine Zidane was spectacular: he completely dominated the midfield, playing the ball superbly, and inspiring his team-mates, and in the first half setting up chances both for Laurent Malouda and for Patrick Vieira, but without resulting in goals. In spite of the 0-0 score after the first half the Brazilians had been a shadow of themselves, while France had been far superior.
This continued as the second half started, and 12 minutes into it, France finally went ahead: Zinedine Zidane took a free kick from the left side, and the ball went perfectly to Thierry Henry, who by the far post was completely alone to volley the ball into the net. Although it was a great goal, the fact that Henry stood so alone can only be blamed on Roberto Carlos, who in one of the most pathetic pieces of defending in World Cup history, seemed to be tying his shoes as the free kick was taken, instead of marking Henry. The images are so blatant that it has led to conspiracy theories flourishing on the internet, but it is perhaps more correct to say that while Roberto Carlos was a great offensive right back, he was an extremely sloppy defender; this was not the first goal that he cost, but surely it was the most important.
The zombie-like Brazilians seemed unable to reply, while France remained in control of the midfield, and even created more chances for a second goal.
Towards the end of the match, Ronaldo came close to getting an equalizer for Brazil, but was denied by Fabien Barthez. Instead, France won as they had done eight years before, and Brazil repeated against France, what is perhaps the poorest match that the mighty South Americans have ever played in a World Cup.
France in the meantime, emerged as favourites to win the tournament, and in the semifinals defeated Portugal to make it to the final, where they lost to Italy after penalty kicks in Zinedine Zidane’s last match on the national team.
- 1st July, 2006, FIFA WM Stadium, Frankfurt
- Attendance: 48,000
- Referee: Luis Medina Cantalejo (Spain)
Goals: 1-0 Henry (57)
France: Barthez; Abidal, Vieira, Gallas, Makalele, Malouda (Wiltord), Zidane (c), Henry (Saha), Thuram, Sagnol, Ribery (Govou)
Brazil: Dida; Cafú (c) (Cicinho), Lucio, Juan, Roberto Carlos, Kaká (Robinho), Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Ze Roberto, Gilberto Silva, Juninho (Adriano)