France was at the heart of every football aficionados’ attention in the summer of 1998. All the stars were converging for the most - and to some the only - important tournament in international sport. Some nations were celebrating a long-await return and others, their debut on this stage. I was ecstatic because of the Latin American talent that had managed to qualify. As usual, the Brazilians were favoured contenders to lift the cup with on-form striker Ronaldo backed up by Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Cafú and other famous personalities representing the joga bonito style. Argentina posed a significant threat and was not a side to take lightly especially with Batigol behind the ball. Chile returned, after a long hiatus, featuring a goal-scoring dynamic duo: Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano. Paraguay fielded one of the world’s best goalkeepers to grace the game, José Luís Chilavert who built a reputation for scoring free kicks – a feat no goalie achieved in this prestigious tournament and he came very close to this.
|Argentina: Another year... another tear|
When living in a footballing country, you will realize the world comes to halt on match days. Countries like England and Germany suffer major losses in production due to absentee labour forces. This is the same in Peru. Although we were in school, classes had lost importance, even to the teachers themselves. This madness strikes indiscriminately people of every age group. The odd thing was that Peru had not even qualified for the tournament. As such, everyone picked a favourite to go all the way and every single match mattered. This is why it is called the people’s game. There is always a team that people can relate to. Also, since this was an American school and there was, in fact, a large high student component of US citizens, they adamantly supported their national flag bearers. I remember being in my ITGS class while the USA played against Iran, a game the Persians bagged after 90 minutes of play. I have never experienced this type of wide-scale support for an international event any other time in my life. Football is everything. I guess that is why we call it soccer in North America.
Mexico was one of the major pleasant surprises during the tournament. The Aztec warriors had few known players outside of their national league but were armed with an unmatched determination to show their national dedication to the game. Luis “El Matador” Hernandez spearheaded the Mexican attack and gave the show of his life netting four important goals in total. Mexico kicked off its campaign in a game against South Korea, turning an early 0-1 deficit into a 3-1 victory. It was an admirable, hard-fought comeback. A few days later, they were down by 2 goals against a strong Belgian side, yet finished with a 2-2 tie. The following group match was decisive and Mexico managed to survive against a stronger Dutch team, gaining points from a 2-2 tie. Not an easy feat against the Oranje. It appeared the Mexicans had found a super in Jesus Arellano. Every time he was brought into a tough game, he made a real difference. Although their run was admirable, especially after sitting on a 1-0 victory over Germany in the knockout stage, the aging Europeans scored twice, sending the Aztecs back to the hotel to pack their bags. This was a disappointing end to an admirable performance.
The Brazilian side had few convincing results. Although they did not lack the talent to outclass their opponents on the field, it seemed that having dubbed the Canarinha as favourites worked like a hex. Six of the seven games they played on French soil saw them concede goals, as if they lacked proper goalkeeping support. Some argue that Brazilians generally are unable to provide top class goalkeepers and this type of performance would support such allegations. The heroes of the day were in the forward lines. They operated on an “I can score one more than you” principle. These were matches for those who feel football is soccer: a boring game where no goals are scored. For a true fan of the sport, confidence is fostered on having a solid team. A hard fought 2-0 victory is much more rewarding than a 7-6 score line. Their strongest test was against the Dutch where they managed to tie after extra time and the game was decided on penalties. At this point, most hardcore fans are on the edge of their seats, bordering cardiac arrest. However, after struggling on, they did face the hosts in a memorable final.
|The first nail to the carioca coffin|
France had managed some convincing wins. They led their group, which took them through to the next round. From then on, they displayed solid defence and kept cool, treating every match like their last. However, every performance left much to be desired, having world-class playmaker and captain Zinedine Zidane at the helm. He was able to single-handedly disarm any line-up he was facing but he did need a natural born goal-scorer by his side to put the icing on his every move. The best game the French showcased was the final match against Brazil. The South American disorder that dominated Brazil’s performance throughout the competition proved fatal against a more organized and determined European side in front of their home fans. Within the first 27 minutes, a beautiful cross was met by Zizou’s majestic bald head and caromed into the back of the net. There was no answer but frustration, and the match finished with a true trouncing of the Brazilians. Sometimes, people can crack under the pressure of trying to live up to the reputation of being a favourite.