TÉO BENJAMIN remembers the final in which his countrymen were defeated by hosts France, and the controversy surrounding Ronaldo’s participation and other off-the-pitch shenanigans
Twenty-four hours after France had lifted the World Cup in 1998 after defeating Brazil, a huge story broke in the tropical country. It was not about the two Zidane headers that built the lead or Petit’s goal which ended the contest and ensured the most comprehensive result in a World Cup final. In fact, the story was not about anything that took place on the pitch.
An email started to circulate detailing the intricacies of a complex corruption scheme that rigged the result of the tournament. Brazil had sold the World Cup. The gravity of the situation was best symbolised by Leonardo, a starter for that Brazilian side: “If people knew what happened here, they would fall sick!”
The message was signed by Gunther Schweitzer, chief sports editor of Brazil’s biggest news outlet. He shed light on an investigation led by the Wall Street Journal and La Gazzetta dello Sport which proved that the Brazilian confederation accepted to lose the final in exchange for the trophy in 2002, and the opportunity to host the tournament soon enough.
Sepp Blatter initiated the proposal, aligned with the French government, desperate to bring stability to the country in the middle of a political and economic crisis. The whole deal was mediated by Nike, the American sportswear company responsible for paying large sums of money to all the Brazilian starters. The only exception was Ronaldo, the star of the team and the tournament, who refused to join the deal and was sidelined. He only came onboard after Nike offered an improved deal just for him.
This story spread like wildfire in Brazil. Every sports fan received the email signed by Gunther Schweitzer, who became instantly famous. There was only one problem: none of this is true. It was fake news before fake news became a buzzword. This was the Brazilian way to cope with the loss. Believing in the corruption fantasy was easier than accepting the truth: they had a superior team but were outsmarted and outran by the hungry Frenchmen.
Something strange really happened to Ronaldo. The official starting XI featured Edmundo in his place and everyone looked shocked and confused. The big star’s presence was confirmed just before kickoff but he was absolutely unrecognisable; a mere shadow of the great player who terrified every defender in the world.
Many stories were told about this day and the more-or-less-final version paints a picture of an episode of epilepsy during the morning, which destabilised him and most of the squad. If you ask any Brazilian about this final, they will tell you about Ronaldo’s situation and the mystery that was never solved, rather than Zizou’s spectacular match-winning performance.
It was never easy for Brazilians to accept defeat, especially under such bizarre circumstances and by such a large margin. Every attempt to explain the defeat leads to circumstances outside of the pitch as if under normal conditions this would never happen – and this belief makes everyone more relaxed.
Brazil was a great team and had a fine tournament. The semi-final against the Netherlands was one of the best matches ever played in a World Cup, and Ronaldo delivered one of the best individual performances of all times. Outstanding. Unstoppable.
Les Bleus had their limitations, struggling every step of the way, and remarkably none of their knockout phase goals came from a recognised striker. They only beat Paraguay in extra-time with a Laurent Blanc goal, eliminated Italy on penalties, and needed an incredible comeback against Croatia, when the defender Lilian Thuram scored twice, the only two he ever netted for France.
But they were fantastic as a team. This collective effort was maybe best represented by the way they sang La Marseillaise together. Every football fan remembers these moments. It was really about the group, not just a sum of individuals. Their 15 goals throughout the cup were scored by nine different players (plus one own goal), and Zidane only found the net twice: both in the final.
Their defence was coordinated by experienced Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly; Didier Deschamps and Christian Karembeu played in midfield. Thuram and Lizarazu were the powerhouses at fullback, with Petit offering plenty of energy all over the pitch. Creatively, a 26-year-old Zidane and 30-year-old Youri Djorkaeff were at the top of their game. Up front they had a big problem, since neither Guivarc’h nor Dugarry proved to possess the quality required at that level, and Henry and Trezeguet were both too young.
They never offered Brazil a chance in Stade de France and could have scored half a dozen times during the first 45 minutes. They ended up scoring twice, both after well-taken corners. Even after the referee showed Desailly the second yellow in the 67th minute, France had control of the match. It always felt like they knew what to do. In the closing stages, Petit outran the entire Brazilian defence to close the scoring and hammer the final nail into the Brazilian coffin.
July 12, 1998, was the day France rediscovered their national identity. A bunch of young men from all walks of life, and different ethnic backgrounds took the French flag to the top of the world, effectively ridiculing the growing far-right discourse that claimed immigrants from former colonies were harmful to French society. Many argue this win delayed the uprising of Front National, the ultra-nationalist party that reached the second round in the 2002 election, shocking the entire world. It was a day of collective effort, unity and pride. For Brazil, it was just another day to look for excuses.