Ranked! The 10 best players of France '98
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 showed 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.
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 France the requisite physical toughness.
Only Suker scored against Les Bleus 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.
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 third-place play-off confirmed the Golden Boot.
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, 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. 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.
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 Thuram, 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.