It is the evening of July 12, 1998, and I am on a family holiday in the Loire Valley in central France. My father, never a particularly impassioned football fan, is likely either sleeping or enjoying do-it-yourself in the old house where we are staying. My mother, such is her disinterest in the beautiful game, might be passing the time with a book. I am, however, glued to the television, wishing I was three hours up the road at the Stade de France in Paris.
The 1998 World Cup finals arrived when my unadulterated love for the beautiful game was at its peak. I was 13 and old enough to appreciate the importance of a tournament that takes place once every four years, but also still young enough to be oblivious to some of the less savoury aspects of a sport that was becoming increasingly influenced by money and businessmen.
I remember Iran beating the United States, but I do not remember any particular political edge. I remember Norway scoring a late penalty to defeat Brazil that resulted in Morocco’s elimination, but I do not remember claims it was because of discrimination against Africa. And I remember Ronaldo being a marvel rather than a marketing tool for Nike.
On the night of the final, I was in no doubt who I wanted to win. Proudly sporting my canary-yellow shirt with green trim, I was very much in the minority in rural France, but I did not care: Brazil were going to win because they had O Fenomeno. Ronaldo was the best player on the planet, so quick and talented that a defender could merely think about blinking and the Brazilian was past him.
The 21-year-old Inter Milan forward had scored four goals and assisted three as his country reached their sixth World Cup final. On the afternoon of the final, though, he suffered an uncontrollable anxiety attack (some suggested it was a seizure) and was ruled unfit to play. The second surprise was when he was reinstated in the team 40 minutes before kick off, but failed to shine. His performance later resulted in a civil-action lawsuit, a medical council inquiry and an investigation by Brazil’s national congress.
For a naive teenager, though, none of this registered. For me, Ronaldo was playing, so Brazil would win. When France scored three times without reply to claim their first world title, I was left speechless. Zinedine Zidane, who had been sent off earlier in the tournament and had not registered a goal at the World Cup, netted two wonderful, powerful headers before Emmanuel Petit provided a final flourish on a late counter-attack.
Sat in front of my TV, I watched a triumphant France side hoist aloft football’s most coveted trophy to the sound of fireworks exploding nearby. At some point, it was suggested that to sample the celebratory atmosphere we drive to Saumur, the largest small town close to where we were staying.
Ten minutes later, we arrived in what is usually a sleepy hamlet more accustomed to battening down its window shutters at 8pm. This evening, though, a raucous street party was going on so, as my dad’s Vauxhall Corsa was rocked back and forth by ecstatic Frenchmen, my fearful brother ordered me to remove the Brazil shirt I was still wearing.
With my shirt at my feet, I looked out at the revellers, witnessed their jubilation and understood their magnificent joy: France were world champions – and I was cold.