And indeed, the Blue and multiethnic team swept all opposition aside in the first round: three victories against South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Denmark saw France through to the last-16. The following two matches were more difficult: first, France faced Paraguay, a solid and defensive team centered around the legendary goalkeeper José Luís Chilavert. France won a hard-fought victory 1-0 after extra time.
In the quarterfinal the French hosts played Italy in one of the classics of international football. Another hard-fought match where France won on penalty kicks after a goalless draw.
In the semifinal France played the sensational Croatians, who were playing their first World Cup and had made it to the semifinals. In another difficult match France won 2-1 on two goals by the Parma defender Lilian Thuram – the only two international goals of his career.
Thus, France was ready for its first World Cup final ever, at home in Paris, and ready to face the defending Brazilian world champions.
Brazil had as always entered the tournament as heavy favourites for the title. But it was obvious from the start that the team was less stable than the 1994 team, although with a stronger attacking force that included the veteran Bebeto, FC Barcelona’s offensive midfielder Rivaldo, and the the Inter striker Ronaldo, who at the time was the best player in the world, already having been awarded the FIFA world player of the year award in 1996 and 1997.
The Brazilian team opened with a hard-fought 2-1 victory against Scotland, before going on to defeat Morocco 3-0. Although they had qualified for the next round before their last match against Norway, their 1-2 defeat showed them as vulnerable. The last-16 match against Chile was won with 4-1, but the quarterfinal again showed the Brazilians in trouble against European teams that gave the Brazilians little space and punished defensive mistakes. Still, Brazil managed to win 3-2 against Denmark, before facing the Netherlands in the semifinal. Again in a difficult match, Brazil managed 1-1 after extra time, and won on penalty kicks.
Although not playing brilliantly, Brazil had nevertheless made it to the World Cup final, but was to play one of the worse matches in their history against a French side whose outstanding players were highly motivated, riding on a wave of intense national excitement, that came to its full expression during the national anthem being played in a full Saint Denis stadium in Paris.
While the French were being pushed forward, Brazil was having problems before the match: there were rumours surging about Ronaldo, who was said to have had a breakdown only hours before the match, and should not have been able to play (other Brazilian players later said that they feared for Ronaldo’s life). However, the rumours also said that Ronaldo had been forced on the pitch by his and the Brazilian team’s main sponsor, Nike, who obviously also denied it all.
This was indeed the culmination of the commercialization of the world cup that had been going on since the 1980’s, had reached a pinnacle at USA 1994, and was now firmly established: All the rumours about Ronaldo were perhaps more a symptom of the fact that the World Cup no longer belongs to the fans or the teams, but now belongs to the sponsors.
This final was to see Adidas (France) against Nike (Brazil).
France started the final in complete dominance, offensively, and putting pressure on the Brazilians. Captain Didier Deschamps had a good long range effort, and after only four minutes the Auxerre striker Stephane Guivarch had a great chance when he was played open by a splendid Zinedina Zidane pass, but missed. Brazil was quite anonymous against the overwhelming French attacks, although Ronaldo had a creeping shot and Rivaldo an excellent header, that were both saved well by the charismatic and confident French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez from AS Monaco.
Finally, in the 27the minute the French pressure bore fruit: Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos gave away a corner-kick (and got himself a yellow card on the way for kicking the corner-flag in frustration) that was taken by Arsenal’s Emmanuel Petit. He kicked it towards the near post where Zinedine Zidane got in front of Leonardo and headed hard into goal.
1-0 to Brazil by the Algerian-descended Zinedine Zidane from Juventus, who had been the best player of the tournament, but had until then not scored a goal.
France continued the pressure after the goal, and at the end of the first half Zinedine Zidane scored for the second time, something that had not happened in a World Cup final since Mario Kempes for Argentina in 1978.
France was leading 2-0 at half-time and had been far superior to the Brazilians.
In the second half the pressure was on the Brazilians, and coach Mario Zagallo put in the offensive Denilson for Leonardo. The French on the other hand, could pull back and threaten the Brazilians on counter-attacks. Within the first fifteen minutes of the second half the Brazilians had two good chances, one to Ronaldo and another one to Bebeto, who was given a free chance by a Barthez blunder, but his shot was cleared by Marcel Desailly.
On the other side, Guivarch had a huge chance for a third for France, but shot over the goal, and was soon replaced by Cristophe Dugarry.
Soon, Brazil was given new hope when Marcel Desailly, who had been one of France’s and the world’s best defenders during the tournament, was given his second yellow card for a challenge on Cafú. Down to ten men, Aimé Jacquet replaced Yoiri Djorkaeff with the more defensive Patrick Vieira, and explicitly played in counter-attacks. The Brazilians were nevertheless still unable to threat the French goal and instead, in the dying minutes of the match Emanuel Petit scored after a good French counter-attack, thereby sealing the French victory.
France, one of the greatest footballing nations never to win, had finally taken the World Cup title in their first final ever.
And Adidas was victorious as well...
This was one of the world cup finals with the greatest qualitative difference between the two sides ever; France was simply far superior on all aspects of the game, while it was probably one of the poorest matches a Brazilian side has ever played.
- 12th July, 1998 Saint Denis, Paris
- Attendance: 80,000
- Referee: Said Belqola (Morocco)
Goals: 1-0 Zidane (27), 2-0 Zidane (45), 3-0 Petit (90)
France: Barthez, Lizarazu, Leboeuf, Desailly (RC, 68), Thuram, Djorkaeff (Veira), Deschamps, Zidane, Petit, Karembeu, (Boghossian), Guivarch (Dugarry)
Brazil: Taffarel, Cafu, Aldair, J. Baiano, R. Carlos, C. Sampaio (Edmundo), Dunga, Rivaldo, Leonardo (Denilson), Bebeto, Ronaldo