“Speaking of my role in the French national team, the situation is the same as the one I mentioned when talking about Juventus: I have to try to be more consistent in my performances. But the French team are strong and we could win the World Cup.”
It reads like a stock answer but Zinedine Zidane would have meant what he said during his interview with FIFA.com back in February 1998. France were hosts of the upcoming World Cup and the midfielder was the poster boy for a country with high hopes.
He’d finished in third place for the 1997 Ballon d’Or behind Predrag Mijatović and Ronaldo after impressing for Juventus as the Serie A side made it all the way to the Champions League final before losing to Borussia Dortmund.
It wasn’t a throwaway comment either. The French had a talented group of players at the time. There was a perfect blend of experience and youth. The likes of Youri Djorkaeff, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram and Laurent Blanc were backed up by Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet.
With home advantage many tipped France to go far but very few could look past Brazil when tasked with naming who they believed would win the World Cup. It was a team littered with stars but the one shining brightest was Ronaldo.
The 21-year-old forward was expected to carry his club form onto the international stage. The 1998 World Cup was supposed to be his coronation, confirmation that the Inter Milan hit man was the best in the world. He lived up to the hype, too. He netted four and assisted a further three as Brazil made it all the way to the final – their sixth in total.
However, tragedy struck. Just hours before the final, Ronaldo suffered convulsive fits. He was omitted from the squad but a late change saw him start the final. The world watched on as France took on the neutral’s favourite.
Ronaldo looked off the pace, understandably, yet the match was being played to a beat. It just wasn’t a samba one.
Zidane, who had been inconsistent throughout the tournament, dazzled. He danced past those in yellow time and time again, but the breakthrough goal wasn’t a thing of beauty. Instead, the France No.10 rose highest to power home a passion-charged header. The hosts had the lead. The playmaker had his first goal of the competition. The world had a new star.
With the bit between his teeth, the Brazilian’s couldn’t stop him. He was leading the likes of Cafu, Dunga and Junior Baiano on a merry dance whenever he picked up the ball.
Zidane, not renown for his aerial ability, punished Brazil’s lax marking again as the first-half creeped into stoppage time. This time it was a corner from the France left which he met. It flew between the legs of future team-mate Roberto Carlos who was standing on the post.
The midfield maestro wheeled away to celebrate, raw emotion took hold as he thrust the France shirt into the lenses of photographers sitting behind the goal.
This was his redemption.
France, managed by Aimé Jacquet at the time, had aced their group. The team won all three of their matches and scored nine goals in the process while conceding just the one. But Zidane was sent off in the 4-0 win over Saudi Arabia and was forced to sit out the 2-1 victory against Denmark.
He returned to the squad for the last-16 tie against Paraguay but didn’t get off the bench, with Blanc replacing him as the hero after netting a 114th minute winner.
Jacquet recalled him to the starting XI for the quarter-final tie against Italy. Zidane’s performance, like his others in the tournament, was lukewarm at best. The game went all the way to penalties and Zidane did score, but it was Blanc, once again, who was the hero. The centre-back stepped up to fire home the match-winning penalty.
Croatia were the only road block between France and a place in the World Cup final. Davor Suker stunned the hosts with a goal just after half-time but the lead lasted less than two minutes. A ricochet on the edge of the penalty area allowed Djorkaeff to poke the ball into the path of Thuram and the defender finished like a seasoned striker.
With just twenty minutes to play Zidane picked Thuram out on the French right and the full-back carried the ball forward. He played a pass into the feet of Christophe Duggary and continued his run into a central area for the return.
A player in red and white got to the ball first but, buoyed after scoring earlier, the France defender shrugged him off and curled home an effort with his weaker left foot from the edge of the area.
Les Bleus had turned it around again. Zidane, however, had been on the periphery. But after watching the final it was abundantly clear the future French legend had been pacing himself and he burst into life on the grandest stage of them all.
The puppet master pulling the strings in the centre of the pitch didn’t have a standout tournament, not like history suggests. This wasn’t like Ronaldo in 2002 or Hristo Stoichkov in 1994. He didn’t dominate from start to finish, but he didn’t have to.
What Zidane did was use his performance in the final as a platform to build his career on. It was the catalyst for Zizou, the future Galáctico, to be born. He went from superstar to megastar off the back of this man-of-the-match performance.
Without it he doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or just a year after finishing third. And he doesn’t join Real Madrid in 2001 for a then world record fee.
They say everything happens for a reason. Ronaldo’s misfortune ahead of the 1998 World Cup final resulted in the Stade de France hosting an open audition for a new star to be born. Zidane didn’t wilt under the spotlight.