As great as a France v Holland cup final would have been at France ’98, the France v Brazil final was probably the most deserved. It pitted the hosts against the holders and two teams that been the most impressive next to Holland, Croatia and Argentina in the whole tournament. Brazil had got there after topping their quite easy group and losing their last game before punishing Chile, doing enough against Denmark and then outlasting the Dutch on penalties. They were led by the 1970 coaching mastermind Mario Zagallo and featured the best free-kick taker in the world (next to Con Boutsianis of course) in Roberto Carlos, the emerging superstar Rivaldo and that man Ronaldo who had been an absolute superstar throughout the tournament
France had come in to the tournament as an enigma. They had gone out meekly at Euro ’96 but coach Aimie Jacquet had claimed (in a classic case of spin doctoring) that winning that tournament would have put too much pressure on them to win this tournament. Stars like Cantona and Ginola had been left to rot with new star Nic Anelka also being left out of a team that was being formed in to a cohesive unit that was technically brilliant. They had won their group easily with wins over South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Denmark with a B team. In the second round they made history by being the first team to score a golden goal against Paraguay and then snuck past Italy on penalties before they came from behind to defeat those plucky Croats.
It was a dream final with key match ups around the pitch, the biggest one being the French defensive duo of Frank LeBouf (in for the suspended Laurent Blanc) and Marcel Desially up against Ronaldo and the tap-in king Bebeto, but 72 minutes before kick off it didn’t look like it would be happening at all. When the official team sheet was handed in to FIFA and then on to the media Ronaldo was not in the team. Rumours began to circulate of a fight between the Brazilian players and that Ronaldo had to be separated from an unnamed teammate. Then as soon as he was out he was back in when a new teamsheet was lodged. With a good three quarters of an hour left to the game he was back on the team sheet and the Brazilians acted all nonchalant and like nothing had happened.
It didn’t help their cause for the rumour mill when they then didn’t appear for the customary pre-match warm up. What exactly was going on with the superstar? Still, the game went ahead and from the beginning Brazil were all over the place. France worked at Brazil but a lack of a killer striker up front (the lamentable Stephane Guivarc’h played up front by himself) meant that it stayed 0-0. Then some 30 minutes in to the match a corner was won by France. The inswinger bamboozled the half-asleep Brazilian defence and Zidane waltzed in and struck with his head to put France in to the lead. Cue massive celebrations in the Stade De’ France and around the country.
This may have seemed like the Brazilian’s were lacking some marking prowess but dead balls was where Jacquet knew that Brazil were vulnerable. In the lead up to the final it was the one thing that the French practiced the most and look what happened, 1-0. It was 2-0 in the almost exactly the same circumstances just near half time which virtually killed off the game. Same corner, same inswinger, same star heading the ball past the same stranded keeper Taffarel and seizing the day, 2-0. Brazil had nothing, the one time Ronaldo was seen was when he was put through to chase a hopeful through ball but the French keeper Fabian Barthez got to the ball first and laid out Ronaldo after a collision.
Ronaldo then had another chance when the ball fell to him in the area but he shot tamely at Barthez, he shouldn’t have been out on the pitch and looked completely despondent. In the second half there was more of the same with Brazil looking flat and their attacking midfielders Rivaldo and Denilson (on for the MIA Leonardo) being kept in the back pockets of French captain Didier Deschamps and Oceania’s own Christian Karembu. Then some hope from Brazil came when Desially decided to try and cripple a Brazilian and was given his second yellow card on 68 minutes and was off. Desially knew the tackle was a rough one and he was walking for the change rooms even before the Moroccan referee had the red card out.
This was a chance for Brazil to change things up and take the game to the French but they sat on their hands in a classic example of stage fright. The French searched for the third goal to bring the house down and got it right near full time (a great time to score) when Arsenal duo Manu Petit and Patrick Vieira linked up. Fresh from their double win with the Gunners that season, Vieira sent a through ball brilliantly to the running Petit who slotted past Taffarel. The crowd was now in hysterics at 3-0 as the President Jacques Chirac, along with a vast majority of the nation, celebrated one of the most one-sided results in the history of any World Cup final.
Deschamps and co went up to collect the cup from tournament organiser (and now UEFA boss) Michel Platini with Platini in a suit with the French top on underneath. Deschamps lifted the cup (with Blanc making an appearance in his full kit despite his suspension) with the Star Wars theme playing over the PA system, a weird yet great touch. The French celebrated in amazing scenes around some famous areas of Paris with the French players having a street parade on Bastille Day some two days later. The Brazilians limped home and went in to hiding with the many stories about Ronaldo and his mystery illness before the game making the press.
Conspiracies ranged from having a fight with his girlfriend (she was shown in the crowd a lot during France 98) and not wanting to play, to having an ankle injury or an upset stomach. Another rumour that eventually came out and was verified at a Government Inquiry (yes, they got involved) that he had in fact had an epileptic fit in his sleep on the night before the final for some 30 to 40 seconds. It was then learned that Roberto Carlos had phoned the doctor and told him to rush over to their room in the afternoon when Ronaldo had started breaking down in to tears and then couldn’t stop vomiting.
Ronaldo was dispatched to a hospital post haste for tests. All through the rest of the day before the match players came in to check on Ronaldo not concentrating on keeping their mind at ease and on the biggest game of their lives that night. That night with the team announced without him (the brilliant and somewhat mad Edmundo his replacement) Ronaldo wandered in to the dressing room and said he was fine to play and hence the change was made. This was after Zagallo had made an impassioned speech to the players saying they could be like 1962 and win without Pele, that tactic out the door once Ronaldo was back. There were allegations also that Nike had demanded that Ronaldo play, but there was never enough proof to prove that Nike had treated the Brazilian side like one of their sweatshops. There were also rumours Ronaldo had finally cracked under the pressure of being the one to rely upon for Brazil with the weight of a nation mired in poverty at the time relying on his magic in the biggest game of his life.
For the next four years Ronaldo would slip in an injury hell with only the Copa America in 1999 showing he still had it. Japan/South Korea 2002 would show he and Brazil were far from finished and he would get his winners medal with two goals in the final to boot. A mystery that will probably never be fully explained and it did overshadow a brilliant win by the French who had cast off the ghosts of 1990 and 1994 to win it for the first time with a side tactically assured. Their last brilliant side that was led by Platini could never quite go all the way in the big one but under Jacquet (who would quit following the win and never coach again) they put together a tough side that went on to win Euro 2000 and become probably the greatest side the French had every put together. Viva La France!