The World Cup came back to France after 60 years. The tournament’s founding father Jules Rimet would have been proud to see his home country organize and later win what had become a monster event since his influential time way back in 1930. By 1998 there was time for expansion again after four straight tournaments with 24 teams. FIFA decided to increase the number of competing teams with 8 to 32 to allow a greater representation from the weaker confederations. Boosted by the expansion of final spots a record 174 countries entered the qualifying competition for France ’98. The expansion also meant there was no room for third placed teams to go through. Now only the top two teams in the eight groups would have a future in the finals.
All the major countries qualified for the 1998 World Cup. The hosts hadn’t played in a World Cup since 1986 and the home fans were cautious in their predictions before the tournament, but after three comfortable wins in the first round the football temperature reached fever heights. Coach Aime Jacquet had built a solid defensive foundation that refused to be beaten. Only two goals were conceded in the whole tournament as France captured their first ever World Cup title with a convincing 3-0 win over Brazil in the final. Zidane stepped up and wrote his name in with golden letters in World Cup history with two headed goals in the final – which was the heaviest defeat Brazil has suffered in World Cup history.
Brazil dreamt of a deadly Ronaldo-Romario duo up front, but the 1994 hero had to pull out of the squad shortly before the tournament started with an injury. Other attacking gladiators like Rivaldo and Bebeto made sure Brazil still reached yet another World Cup Final, but Romario was missed.
Croatia was a positive surprise with tournament topscorer Davor Suker as the leader of the pack. Six goals in six different matches was the kind of consistency Croatia needed from their marksman. They ended up with bronzemedals beating the Netherlands in the play-off. Robert Prosinecki made history by scoring for two different countries in World Cups, he also netted for Yugoslavia 1990.
Argentina, Netherlands and Denmark all contributed in France ’98 being an enjoyable competition for neutral fans with their attacking football. Gabriel Batistuta with powerful finishing, Dennis Bergkamp with elegant ballcontroll and two Laudrups gave strong performances throughout the tournament along with the rest of their teams. They were all ousted on small margins.
England and Italy yet again failed from the penalty-spot and were left with memories of what could have been. 18 year-old Michael Owen scored his classic solo-goal against Argentina in the tournament’s most memorable match which also saw David Beckham being sent off.
A record 22 red cards were handed out during the weeks in France much because referees had stricter guidelines to follow when booking players. Rigobert Song of Cameroon became the first man in history to be sent off twice. He also saw red in 1994 versus Brazil. Cameroon once again failed to get out of the groupstage and Nigeria was the sole African team left after the first round. Morocco had their moments, but were eliminated because Norway managed to overcome Brazil in the final game. Debutants South Africa had a tough job grouped with France, but came away with credit. Tunisia sacked coach Kasperczak after two games, but it made little difference.
Iran was back after 20 years and won a prestigious match against USA, but couldn’t get through anyway. South Korea, in their fourth straight cup, started well against Mexico, but then had a player sent off and the team collapsed. Jamaica and Japan were exotic additions in France, but lacked experience and learnt valuable lessons about what it takes to have sucess at this level. Their colourful fans made impression though. The Japanese fans even cleaned up after themselves before leaving the stadium.
Spain, not for the first time, was a big disappointment. They were eliminated in the first round much thanks to a horrible error by veteran keeper Zubizarreta against Nigeria. That incident turned the game and Spain never recovered. Not even a 6-1 demolishion of Bulgaria could save the Spaniards as other results went against them.
Germany with a very ageing team ran out of steam against Croatia in the quarterfinal. Lothar Matthäus made his record 25th World Cup appearance and participated in his fifth finals. Jürgen Klinsmann also said farewell to the international scene after this.