The 16th FIFA World Cup was the largest ever, contested by 32 teams with 64 matches played. The eight groups of four teams were spread out throughout France in the ten new or refurbished stadia, with the opening game and the final held in the splendid new Stade de France just north of Paris.
32 countries meant 30 qualifying spots, providing more opportunities for teams from Africa and Asia. The four-team groups also reflected the geographical spread, with all but one of the pools comprising two Europeans, one from the Americas and one from Africa or Asia.
As is often the case with the FIFA World Cup, the opening round threw up its fair share of surprises, with certain favourites having to make way for a few unfancied lesser lights in the second round. Spain failed to break their FIFA World Cup hoodoo after a slow start and despite a grandstand finish. Facing a race against the odds after a 3-2 loss to Nigeria in their opener, Javier Clemente's side racked up six goals against the hapless Bulgarians only for Paraguay to beat the group-leading Super Eagles and qualify at Spain's expense.
Colombia also failed to progress, in a group topped by a Romanian side which surprised England 2-1. Scotland and Jamaica had to bow to the likes of Brazil and Argentina respectively in their qualifying groups, but their legion of fans took advantage of the opening two weeks of the competition to spread warmth and laughter throughout the host nation. Morocco also finished the tournament with a tinge of regret, after a last-minute penalty enabled Norway to beat a full-strength Brazil and steal second place in the group from the North Africans.
The tie of the last 16 came in Saint-Etienne, where England and Argentina played out an epic contest. The first half will go down in the annals as 45 minutes of classic football - a penalty each in the first ten minutes, Michael Owen's goal of the tournament then putting the Three Lions ahead before Javier Zanetti finished off a clinical free-kick move on the stroke of half-time to equalise. After the break, goals were replaced by high drama - David Beckham sent off for kicking out at Diego Simeone, Sol Campbell's "winner" disallowed for a foul on the 'keeper, extra time, penalties" Carlos Roa saved England's fifth and final spot kick from David Batty to see the South Americans through to the final.
Host nation France, meanwhile, were making their way slowly but surely towards their date with destiny. After sporting a perfect record in the group stage, they came up against stubborn resistance from Paraguay and need the first ever (and to date only) FIFA World Cup golden goal in the 113th minute, courtesy of central defender Laurent Blanc, to go through. Italy were their next opponents, and this time it was the thickness of the woodwork which came to their rescue. Roberto Baggio flashed a free header past the post in the dying minutes of extra time, then Luigi di Biagio rattled the crossbar with the fifth and decisive penalty of the shootout.
In the semi-final, the hosts found themselves up against the surprise package - Croatia. Entering their first FIFA World Cup since the former Yugoslavia had been divided into separate states, Miroslav Blazevic's chequered-shirted heroes upset Germany 3-0 in the quarter-final before stunning the home crowd when golden boot winner Davor Suker gave them the lead after the break against France. Cometh the hour, cometh the man - right back Lilian Thuram chose this moment to score his first, and second, international goals and set up a dream final - hosts France against holders Brazil, who had overcome Chile, Denmark and the Netherlands in the knock-out stages.
Thus it was that on 12 July, "the day of glory arrived", to borrow a line from France's national anthem La Marseillaise. With a header in the 27th minute followed by a second in first half injury time, playmaker Zinedine Zidane sent shock waves through his Brazilian opponents from which they would never recover. Despite being reduced to ten men after Marcel Desailly's expulsion in the 68th minute, the French fortress not only withstood a final pounding from Brazil but even slotted in another goal after a counter-attack from Emmanuel Petit in the last minute. The final whistle from Moroccan referee Belqola, the first African ever to officiate at a FIFA World Cup final, was the signal for the entire population to indulge in raptures of delight. The Champs Elys?es alone were awash with over a million revellers dancing through the night.
Did You Know?
In sporting terms, France '98 will go down in history as a successful World Cup. Increasing the number of competitors to 32 removed the safety net previously available to a table of 24 teams to qualify through the back door into the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. This time around, it was do or die in the group round matches. Teams therefore went all out for goals rather than relying on defence.
Most countries went about this with creative design and not brute force, enabling the world to discover such fresh young talents as Ariel Ortega (Argentina), Thierry Henry (France) and Michael Owen (England). Owen earned the distinction of scoring one of the most breathtaking goals of the whole World Cup, where 171 hit the target in a total of 64 matches. Davor Suker (Croatia) was the top scorer with six goals.
|adidas Golden Shoe winner||Davor SUKER (CRO) 6|
|adidas Golden Ball winner||RONALDO (BRA)|
|FIFA Fair play award||England / France|
|FIFA Award for the Most Entertaining Team||France|
|Yashin Award for the Best Goalkeeper||Fabien BARTHEZ (FRA)|