An alternative reflection on the 1998 World Cup, from Paul Watson...
Most people believed the 1998 World Cup to be the last major competition before the collapse of civilisation, which was scheduled to happen six months before Euro 2000, and many sides struggled with the weight of expectation.
It's just like watching Norway
Brazil opened the competition looking oddly vulnerable. Scotland heroically troubled the holders and looked set to claim a draw before they heroically handed the game to Brazil with an own goal. Although Brazil managed to beat Morocco, they were stunned by Norway in a game that drastically reconfigured global football stereotypes in the four-day period before Norway went out to Italy. Commentators gushed about the Norway side having grown up playing on the beaches of Oslo, while kids in playgrounds all over the world pretended to be Havard Flo and Oyvind Leonhardsen. Still nobody pretended to be Kjetil Rekdal.
Like Norway, Denmark were rebranding Scandinavian football. The Danes were magnificent in a 4-1 win over Nigeria, causing commentators to suggest viewers "forget what they knew about Denmark", which they were able to do within the duration of the Danish national anthem. But Brazil conquered Denmark 3-2 in the quarter-finals and re-established Brazil’s position as the Brazil of world football. Denmark returned to being the Denmark of world football, and Norway inadvertently became the Iceland of world football – an administrative error that is yet to be fully resolved.
Keegan the clairvoyant
England edged through the group stage, beating Colombia and Tunisia but losing to Romania, who had all dyed their hair blond with the exception of bald goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea, who dyed his entire head yellow. The decision had little impact on the pitch but it wrecked havoc for the commentators. Jon Champion is still undergoing therapy and will sometimes be heard yelling ‘Lacatus!’ at strangers.
The competition launched Michael Owen into stardom. The diminutive striker’s pace and fragility proved a lethal combination against Argentina, and he won a penalty when a sneeze in the crowd curtailed an excellent run to allow England to level. Owen scored a fantastic second but Argentina made it 2-2 with a cunning free-kick that had seen Javier Zanetti go undercover in the England squad for three months in order to find space in the box to shoot.
In extra-time, David Beckham was sent off for kicking at Diego Simeone while on the floor. The ever-loyal English public showed their appreciation for Beckham’s heroics throughout the competition by launching a tide of vitriol that only ended when Beckham’s wife Victoria offered to disband the Spice Girls in reparation.
England inexplicably pinned their hopes on David Batty in the resulting penalty shootout. As he ran up, Brian Moore asked pundit Kevin Keegan: "Do you back him to score, yes or no?" Keegan gave a definitive "yes", Batty’s kick was saved. As England mourned another World Cup campaign, Keegan again predicted "yes" to three replays.
Loved Jackets becomes a hero
Pre-tournament, things hadn’t looked bright for hosts France and their quiet manager Aime Jacquet, or 'Loved Jackets' in English. Jacquet was labelled incompetent by the press, and when he submitted a list of 28 players, instead of the required 22 in May, L’Equipe demanded he resign. But Jacquet had pulled a masterstroke; he wasn’t pulled up on it and would later sneak as many as 25 players on the pitch for some games.
France were an unspectacular side with no strikers to speak of, but most teams had as much chance of getting past Bixente Lizarazu as David Pleat had of saying Bixente Lizarazu. Les Bleus evoked some strange power from kissing the head of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, a practice that eventually evolved into licking for more important matches. For the final, Zinedine Zidane put Barthez’s entire head in his mouth like a stubbly Softmint.
France faced Brazil in the final, which turned out to be an oddly one-sided affair, possibly because Brazil’s players had been unsettled by the death and resurrection of Ronaldo in the build-up to the game. A 3-0 defeat was Brazil’s worst since 1930, and to make matters worse they returned home to find Cesar Sampaio had leaked all over their clothes.