The inside story of how a divided nation united behind a victorious team with a little help from Jacques Chirac, Gloria Gaynor and some Zidane fella...
Just days before France's opening game of the 1998 World Cup finals, coach Aime Jacquet assembled the squad in the changing room at Clairefontaine, the training headquarters of the French football association. "I want us to be together in this," he announced. "We need to focus. What is going to happen is so important... and I don't think that you have fully realised yet."
He was right. Privately the players weren't confident and there was little belief – either in the dressing room or out in the country – that this team had what it took to clinch the ultimate prize in football. "If truth be told, before we started we never thought we'd win the World Cup," admits Zinedine Zidane.
"We wanted to win it, but sincerely we were far from believing we could. We'd had a very bad training session before the first game and we said, 'If we play like that tomorrow, it's going to be very difficult for us'."
The first test for the French was in Marseille against South Africa, a team with no pedigree at all at the World Cup. However, the players were far from confident and travelled to the game in a deathly silence. "The pressure was intense," admits Emmanuel Petit. "I could see some players sweating on the bus before we arrived at the stadium."
Jacquet did his best to inspire the team with a pre-match pep talk. "We are lucky to be playing here in Marseille," he said to the assembled team. "For football reasons it's great that we are starting here. The pride of football is here, and the one thing they appreciate here are boys that are unreservedly complete, that like to give it everything they've got."
Racked by self-doubt, the players appreciated his confidence but a sense of trepidation remained. "It's not often that you come across a manager with as much belief as Aime Jacquet," says Marcel Desailly. "I find it unbelievable how he anticipated France's victory in such a huge competition. It built our confidence up to see that he was himself so confident. It made us more positive and also helped us realise our abilities. I think he was mostly confident in the group itself, in our capacity to overcome any challenge that the competition might present, but the doubts did persist."
The team's fragile state of mind wasn't helped by the positive attitude of their first opponents. The French could hear the South Africans singing in their dressing room next door and unnervingly they were still singing when they started to walk to the pitch.
"We just looked at them and we really didn't feel like we had the same objective in mind," recalls Desailly. "They looked happy to go out there and play, while we looked frustrated, introverted and down. There was a weird atmosphere because everyone had cheered the South African team onto the pitch, and when we came out there was total silence. That cranked up the pressure even more. Those were uncertain times, though. In my entire career I've rarely experienced such pressure in the run-up to a match."
For Zidane this was his home town, and once out on the pitch of the Stade Velodrome he found the crowd's singing of the French national anthem an inspirational experience. In the city that gave its name to the song, La Marseillaise stirred something deep within the French team.
"It really lifts your heart," says Zidane. "It encourages you to surpass yourself and this is what we did. We started slowly but we won the match 3-0 and we got back in the changing room feeling stronger. We realised that something had ignited."
It was ironic that Zidane, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, should take such heart from the crowd's passionate singing of La Marseillaise. The same song had been used as a stick to beat the squad by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the country's far-right National Front Party. He had attacked the multi-racial make-up of Aime Jacquet's team to further inflame anxieties in a country riven by racial tension.
"Jean-Marie Le Pen said during the World Cup that he didn't recognise the national team because there were too many black players," recalls Petit. "He made an attack about the black players and he said that most of them didn't sing the national anthem."
"Some of us sing and some of us don't," explains Desailly, "but it really has nothing to do with our foreign origins. I think he was just using us for his own political ends. We spoke about it amongst ourselves but it didn't really affect us because we already had some strong opinions on right-wing politics and Mr Le Pen in particular.
"He did come to watch a few matches at the World Cup in 1998 and a few games of Euro 2000, and he actually applauded the French team and he jumped up and down and embraced all the people around him whenever we scored, no matter what the colour of the scorer."
With the game against South Africa successfully navigated, the relief was tangible and the team celebrated in the dressing room with a rowdy terrace rendition of Gloria Gaynor's disco classic 'I Will Survive', which had been introduced to them by defender Vincent Candela in training and which promptly became their anthem for the tournament.
A blessing in disguise
The next match would be less reassuring as, despite coasting to a 4-0 win, the team's one truly majestic player was sent off for violent misconduct. "I felt terrible when I got sent off," says Zidane. "I took it badly because I let my team-mates down and I was going to miss games."
However, the red card seemed to have a positive effect on the remaining players, pulling them closer together as they determined to win for Zidane. "No one criticised him," says Fabien Barthez. "We told him not to worry, that he would play again, that we were there for him. We wanted to win for him."
"Zidane was so important to the team," says Desailly, "but to tell you the truth, I reckon his absence had a beneficial effect because it helped us bond even further. We'd lost our star player so we went about rebuilding the team without him."
Without Zidane the French qualified for the second round and although Paraguay proved a sterner test, Laurent Blanc scored the first golden goal in World Cup history to help the team through to the last eight. Confidence within the team was gradually building and although the quarter-final against Italy was a contest bereft of excitement, the French had Zidane back in the starting line-up and the penalty shootout victory seemed to finally wake the country up to what was happening with the national team.
"After the quarter-final we really felt that the country was behind us," says Desailly. "We couldn't avoid seeing what was going on when we went through towns and estates on the team bus. Africans, Algerians, Arabs and Moroccans were all at their windows with French flags. They were mixing with French people and everyone was singing together and everybody had their faces painted in blue, white and red.
"It was amazing to see the way a big competition like the World Cup can unite people," he continues. "If Zidane or Thuram scored, everybody celebrated and people just didn't care if the person they embraced was black, yellow or blue."
France had never progressed beyond the semi-final of the World Cup, and with Croatia now standing in the way of a place in the final, the weight of expectation became unbearable. The French again started nervously, and in a surprisingly difficult first half they struggled to make any headway. During the interval Jacquet's heated team talk left nothing to the imagination.
"We're losing all our chances," he told his players. "It's not that complicated: either we react, or we go, because there is a final at the end, or you let it go. What are you scared of? Who are you scared of? You're going to lose, and it's no wonder."
"Jacquet knew he had to do something, because we were pretty exhausted," says Barthez. "None of us had got to this stage in the competition before, but he was there to tell us what we needed to hear. We looked each other straight in the eyes and said, 'Right guys, let's do it!' It must have worked with Lilian Thuram, as when I played with him at AS Monaco he would get right up to the goal and not shoot because he was afraid he would miss. That day, when he shot twice and scored twice, he was able to rise above his fear because he wanted to win so much."
Having never scored for his country, Thuram netted the two goals that took France to the World Cup final, the first coming just a minute after he had played Davor Suker onside for Croatia's opener early in the second half. After the final whistle he was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of his team-mates. "It was a fantastic moment," says Zidane. "We said 'Thuram for President' after the game."
Just weeks earlier France had little belief in this team, and politicians had openly questioned their national pride. Now, after the game, President Chirac appeared in the changing room to congratulate the team. He was wearing a France shirt with '23' on the back and he even took the liberty of kissing Barthez on his shaven head, much to the bemusement of the keeper as this was a much-seen ritual reserved only for Laurent Blanc at the beginning of each game. "I was really taken aback," remembers Barthez. "That was just for Laurent and me and for anyone else it was out of the question."
A red card for Blanc late in the game meant that the Marseille defender would be suspended for the final, but the night before the big game, he still had a word of encouragement for Zidane. "He came to see me as if nothing had happened and said, 'I guarantee that if there is a match to score goals, it's this one'. Just those few words from Laurent were enough to lift the heart. When you are young and you are with a player like that, it gives you wings."
"The final was a jolly"
As the team made its way to the Stade de France on the day of the final, the magnitude of the event began to hit the players. "One image has stayed with me above all," says Zidane. "What surprised me was the number of people in the street. There must have been hundreds of thousands lining the road.
"I was right at the back of the bus, in the middle of the back row, and I turned round and there must have been 500 motorbikes following us. It was incredible, really incredible. That's the image I have and it gives me immense encouragement, because these moments are unique. When you experience them, even only once in a lifetime, you tell yourself that life has been worth living."
So much had changed in the course of just a month. This was now a group united in the belief that they were capable of anything. "On the morning of the match we knew we were going to win," insists Barthez. "For me this was like an outing. The first match had been awful, a horrible experience, whereas for the final I knew it was going to be like a jolly – a nice pitch, a nice ball, a full stadium and a party."
As the team prepared for the kick-off, rumours began to circulate that Brazil's World Player Of The Year could possibly miss the game. The name of Ronaldo wasn't included on Mario Zagallo's team sheet when it was first submitted. The French were disappointed as they wanted nothing to diminish the achievement that they were certain would be theirs. "We were aware of what was going on," says Barthez, "but we wanted to play against the real Brazilian team, with Ronaldo carrying the flag. We wanted to see how we measured up to this legendary team – Brazil for real."
Seemingly in disarray, the Brazilians didn't even make it onto the pitch for a warm-up, but even with Ronaldo reinstated in the side at the last minute, they proved no match for the supremely confident French. In the 27th minute Zidane showed the world exactly why Jacquet had placed so much faith in him, rising to head home a corner supplied by Petit. He scored a carbon copy just before half-time and the French players left the pitch for the interval in a state of disbelief and excitement.
"I had a bit of a shouting match with Lilian Thuram because he was going into the changing rooms all excited," says Barthez. "We were like little kids at a tournament. I think it was the first time I let off some steam, saying that everyone needed to calm down." Petit agrees: "Even the manager said 'Would you all shut up in the dressing room and calm down?' He told us to concentrate on what we had to do in the second half."
And they did, until half way through the half. With just 22 minutes separating France from victory, Desailly was sent off for a second bookable offence. "I got a bit carried away by my excitement, by the dream of scoring a goal in the World Cup final," he says.
Even with the French down to 10 men, Brazil couldn't make an impression and they became increasingly frustrated, arguing among themselves. In the dying moments of the match, Petit broke to score the goal that put the match beyond reach. As the final whistle sounded the moment proved too much for Barthez. "To be honest," he reveals, "I have cried twice in my life: at the birth of my son and at the end of the World Cup."
As France were hosts, it was the job of President Chirac to award the World Cup to Jacquet's team. Their performance had turned France, a country traditionally more interested in solo sports, football-crazy: even the president's wife had been swept along with the enthusiasm, admitting to having a crush on goalscorer Petit. "The president came up to me, we shook hands and he looked at me and said, 'You are the one my wife prefers'."
A million people gathered to celebrate on the Champs Elysees, singing the team's unofficial anthem 'I Will Survive', and that night across the country millions of others did likewise. Victory was seen as a triumph for multicultural France and Zidane, the man who had more than anybody else come to embody the French victory, was thanked by the city of Paris. A simple message was projected on to the Arc de Triomphe, with the words 'Merci Zizou'.