“Speaking of my role in the French national team, the situation is the same as the one I mentioned when talking about Juventus: I have to try to be more consistent in my performances. But the French team are strong and we could win the World Cup.”
Those were the words uttered by a humble Zinedine Zidane in the winter of 1997, leading up to the World Cup the following summer in his home country.
In a mightily talented French squad, managed by Aime Jacquet, there was no doubting that Zizou was the poster-boy – although few would’ve foreshadowed the maverick midfielder’s swift evolution into one of his generation’s most significant cultural icons.
Zidane’s tournament before the final had been lukewarm at best. He was sent off for a stamp
Fuad Amin in France’s 4-0 win over Saudi Arabia, which meant he sat out their victory over Denmark. Despite returning to the squad for the last-16 encounter with Paraguay, he failed to get off the bench as Laurent Blanc struck a late winner in extra time.
A recall from Jacquet came in the quarter-finals against Italy, where Blanc’s winning penalty in the shootout saw him thrust into the limelight once more.
Zidane, meanwhile, remained on the periphery, and it was Lilian Thuram’s turn to take centre stage in the semi-finals as the defender’s unlikely brace saw Les Bleus overturn a 1-0 deficit against a plucky Croatia side to reach the final.
Beating pre-tournament favourites Brazil was the task at hand on the grandest stage – a side glittering with talent all over the field, with golden boy Ronaldo being the name on everyone’s tongues throughout the French summer of ’98.
While Zidane had struggled to play a mere supporting role amid France’s surge to the final, Ronaldo had starred – he’d scored four times and set up another three. The final in Paris on July 12 was supposed to be his crowning moment and confirmation that the generationally gifted forward was the best footballer on the planet.
But as we know (or do we?) tragedy struck.
Convulsions suffered just hours before kickoff had thrust Ronaldo’s status for the final into significant doubt. The then-Inter hitman was initially omitted from Mario Zagallo’s matchday squad, before a stunningly swift recovery saw Brazil’s shiniest star lineup in the 1970 World Cup-winning coach’s starting XI.
As has been spoken and written about a thousand time since, Ronaldo looked miles off the pace as a seemingly startled Brazil unit struggled to ever get out of first gear.
The previously anonymous Zidane, however, didn’t miss a beat.
Serving alongside Youri Djorkaeff as Jacquet’s magisterial number tens in his Christmas tree formation, Zizou was given free rein to dictate play all over the Stade de France turf; kickstarting combinations from deep, outfoxing Brazil’s full-backs with ingenious ball manipulation and cutting right through the heart of the Seleção carrying the ball himself.
After Stephane Guivarc’h butchered the chance to give the hosts the lead in the opening stages following a majestic sequence of play from Zidane – which started from inside his own half and culminated in a slick nutmeg on Aldair which sent Guivarc’h through on goal – France’s number ten took matters into his own hands.
Zidane headed home in the most emphatic of fashions to break the deadlock, before repeating the feat with an almost identical finish from Djorkaeff’s in-swinging corner to double France’s lead just before the break.
Even with 45 minutes left to play, the Brazilians looked more concerned about the welfare of their most prized possession and the French defence locking up Ronaldo’s supremely talented supporting cast with a rigid defensive block, Zidane’s first two goals of the tournament had all but handed the Jules Rimet to Les Blues.
Despite the dismissal of Marcel Desailly, France – and Zizou specifically – stuck to the task at hand superbly, and their reward for a stellar defensive effort was Emmanuel Petit’s ‘sealer’ in stoppage time to wrap up an imperious final display with a 3-0 victory.
But for Zidane, this was his redemption.
The puppet master pulling the strings didn’t dominate the entirety of the tournament. This wasn’t a complete campaign like Diego Maradona’s in 1986, or Ronaldo’s own redemption four years later in 2002, but his display on 12 July 1998 served as a watershed moment on his way to superstardom.
Ronaldo’s misfortune ahead of the final ultimately meant the Stade de France was the amphitheatre for the emergence of a megastar. It was the catalyst for a glittering career which would end eight years later in the most infamous of fashions.
And as the Arc de Triomphe projected during the country’s celebrations in the aftermath, all there’s left to say is: ‘Merci Zizou’.