Top 10: Players of France '98

Jonathan Wilson looks at the legends who lit up the World Cup...

1. Lilian Thuram, France

Knowledge of what he could do, and what he would subsequently do in Euro 2000, has tended to cast 1998 as Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup, but actually this was a tournament won through solid defence and the ability to conjure a goal just when they needed it.

With a narrow midfield – Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembeu all started the final – there was an onus on the two full-backs, Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuam, to provide width, something both did superbly. It was Thuram, though, who stood out, principally for his astonishing performance in the semi-final against Croatia. 

At Euro 84, another full-back, Jean-Francois Domergue, had scored his only two goals for his nation to turn a semi-final in which France were struggling. Here, Thuram repeated the trick. In 141 other games for France he didn’t score, but 30 seconds after Les Bleus had fallen behind, he dispossessed Zvonimir Boban, exchanged passes with Youri Djorkaeff and tucked an angled finish across Drazen Ladic. Then, 22 minutes later, he outmuscled Robert Jarni and drove in from the edge of the box.

It had been Thuram who played Davor Suker onside for Croatia’s goal, but as that was the only time they conceded in his six games during the tournament, he could be forgiven.

2. Ronaldo, Brazil

Would Brazil have won the 1998 World Cup but for whatever happened to Ronaldo before the final? Perhaps France, on home soil, had sufficient sense of their own destiny to have stopped them in the final, but it would surely have been far harder for them than it eventually proved.

Ronaldo after the knee injury was an excellent player; before it he was a phenomenon, an astonishing blend of pace, power and skill capable of mesmerising goalkeepers with a couple of swift step-overs. Only 21 going into the Finals, he'd been a key reason Brazil had gone a record 45 games unbeaten before a shock defeat to Norway in 1997, and was superb in the tournament.

A low volley against Morocco was his only strike of the group stage, as Brazil slowly found their rhythm, but Ronaldo burst into life against Chile in the second round, hitting post and bar and scoring twice. He set up two in Brazil’s 3-2 defeat of Denmark, then scored in the 1-1 semi-final draw against the Netherlands. And then, shortly before the final, he had a fit and was withdrawn from the starting line-up. Although mysteriously restored to it, he wandered round in a daze.

3. Davor Suker, Croatia

Croatia were a decent team, with a midfield of astonishing creativity, but what carried them to the semi-finals was the goals of Davor Suker. To call him just a poacher seems unfair, for he could drift wide and help link the play, but he was at his best in the box, sniffing out chances and then converting them with a tremendous range of finishes.

In France, he might not have scored any goals quite as good as the chip he'd sent sailing over Peter Schmeichel at Euro 96, but the quantity more than made up for it. A deflected shot – following a superb chest-and-volley - got him off the mark against Jamaica. He got the only goal against Japan, and hit the bar with a delicious lob.

Against Romania he twice converted the same penalty, having been made to retake it because of encroachment. Both times, he put his fingers to his neck, waiting for his pulse to fall to 120 before hitting the ball low to the keeper’s left. Against Germany in the quarters, he scored a rare goal with his right foot, and showed great cool again against France in the semis to slot home Aljosa Asanovic’s through ball. The winner in the 3rd-and-4th-place match confirmed the Golden Boot.

4. Marcel Desailly, France

Forget his red card three-quarters of the way through the final, awarded for a late challenge on Cafu, and reflect instead on his consistency in the rest of the tournament. Laurent Blanc alongside him was composed, but it was Desailly who gave them the requisite physical toughness.

Only Suker scored against France in open play in the Finals, and after Blanc had been sent off in that semi, Desailly even made Frank Leboeuf look good in the final. The only shame is that Ronaldo’s fit denied the world a clash between the best centre-forward and the best centre-back in the tournament.

5. Dennis Bergkamp, Netherlands

His last-minute winner against Argentina in the quarter-final – taking down Frank de Boer’s long pass, turning inside Roberto Ayala and sidefooting his finish into the top corner – lives in the mind, particularly as it made him the Netherlands’ leading international scorer of all time.

But it was far from Bergkamp’s only contribution. Earlier in that game he had set up Patrick Kluivert’s opener by heading Ronald de Boer’s ball across the face of goal, but throughout the tournament he was a steely intelligence in the Dutch forward line. An unpunished stamp on Sinisa Mihajlovic in the second round suggested just how capable he was of looking after himself.

6. Christian Vieri, Italy

At his best, Vieri’s blend of power and skill made him almost unplayable, and this was as close as he got to his best in a major tournament. He side-footed the opener against Chile, scored with a brilliant chipped finish and bundled another against Cameroon, and thumped in a header to put Italy ahead against Austria. He scored the only goal with his weaker right foot as Italy beat Norway in the second round before, like so many before him, being marked into oblivion by Desailly in the quarter-final. He did, at least, score his penalty in the shoot-out.

7. Juan Sebastian Veron, Argentina

Never judge a player only by what he does in the Premier League. Veron in 1998 was exceptional, a player with the vision and range of passing that would have made him a playmaker in most countries, but with a sufficient engine that Argentina felt they could afford to play him deeper. The one-two with Diego Simeone to lay on Ariel Ortega’s first against Jamaica was magnificent, as was the invention that led him to take a short free-kick to Javier Zanetti in the second-round game against England. His best assist, though, came against the Dutch, a sumptuous long pass for Claudio Lopez.

8. Edgar Davids, Netherlands

Davids had been sent home from Euro 96 after telling his coach Guus Hiddink that "he needed to take his head out of the arses of certain players", but they had made up before the World Cup, and Davids repaid Hiddink’s forgiveness with a string of outstanding, selfless performances.

Snarling and snapping, he allowed Frank de Boer the time to direct play from deep, a guard dog who was also more than capable of making a pass or scoring a goal – as he did in the final minute against Yugoslavia, driving in from the edge of the box to win a tense second-round match.

9. Dunga, Brazil

It's not fashionable to praise Dunga – for who watches football for diligence and intelligence rather than flamboyance? – but his impact was again immense. This was not his tournament in the way 1994 had been, but he was still vital to Brazil’s well-being, particularly in the semi-final against the Dutch as all about him seemed to be losing their heads.

And for those who claimed he couldn’t actually kick a ball, he yet again kept his nerve to score a penalty in a high-pressure shoot-out. A self-sacrificing player and a first-class captain who, frankly, deserves a little more respect.

10. Zinedine Zidane, France

His two goals in the final, both headed from corners, have led to the impression this was Zidane’s tournament. But although he was good, he was far, far better at Euro 2000.

Here, his corner set up Christophe Dugarry in France’s opener against South Africa, and he then spun brilliantly out of a challenge and flicked a pass out for Lizarazu to set up Thierry Henry’s opener against Saudi Arabia. A red card for a stamp on Fuad Amin rather soured that match, though, and he was subdued in both quarter-final and semi before bursting back to life against Brazil.


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