Stars Of France 98

I absolutely loved France 98.

It has to be one of my favourite World Cups. Every continent seemed to produce a team or a player that caught my eye.

Given my continued adoration for the tournament that year, I’ve decided to list some of it’s standout stars.

I may have forgotten some of your favourites, so feel free to let me know your top heroes from France 98 in the comment section.

I reallfeel for Chile hitman Marcelo Salas during this tournament.

Marcelo had hit the goalscoring headlines before this tournament with his exploits in Argentina with River Plate. He also scored ten goals in qualifying for this tournament. A move to Serie A side Lazio was already a goer before his trip to France.

Clinical striker Salas put all of Serie A on notice as he bagged four goals during these finals. Ironically he produced a brace against Italy. His first saw him controlling a header from strike partner Ivan Zamarano before Salas thumped the ball home. His second was a delightful powered header which gave Gianluca Pagliuca no chance!

Salas would then turn in another Zamarano header against Austria (How good was Ivan Zamarano by the way?).

Marcelo struck for the final time against the mighty Brazil as the holders thumped Chile in Round Two. Salas didn’t care about reputations, he just loved scoring against any opponent. His goal against the Brazilian side was a real poachers effort after a mistake from Claudio Taffarel.

I always appreciated players that would come to life in the opposition’s penalty area. Marcelo Salas was superb when a chance fell to him in the box and he would celebrate every goal as if it was a winner.

I don’t think I’d ever seen, or at least noticed, the Japanese national team before France 98. I say the team but it was Hidetoshi Nakata that really caught my eye.

The midfielder looked head and shoulders above any of his teammates and many of his opponents too. He possessed a calmness on the ball that would often see him dictate the pace of a game and the vision to create chances for attacking teammates.

We have to remember that the internet wasn’t the font of all knowledge that it is now. So Nakata’s emergence totally surprised me. I think that’s why the World Cup isn’t as special these days, they don’t have surprise packages like Nakata anymore.

The flame-haired Nakata was just twenty-one at the time of the Coupe du Monde and he handled the pressure with aplomb.

Japan had a tough group, facing Argentina and Croatia in their opening two games. They battled hard against those two sides and Hidetoshi’s guile showed the world he was ready for a bigger stage. He was a typical number eight of that time, happy to get on the ball and look for a forward pass.

His performances won him a move to Serie A side Perugia and he’d be later known as the Japanese David Beckham. He unfortunately didn’t realise his full potential before retiring at just 29 years old.

First we had Rene Higuita in 1990, then we, flamboyanthad Jorge Campos in 94 and then Jose Luis Chilavert came along in France 98.

The 90s did seem to throw up it’s fair share of eccentric, flamboyant goalies. I had heard of Chilavert’s reputation before this tournament. It’s hard to keep a goalscoring goalkeeper a secret to be fair.

The Paraguayan was a set-piece specialist and that meant he was his side’s designated free-kick taker if any of his teammates were fouled within shooting distance from the opposition goal. The national team captain fired in a top class free-kick against Bulgaria, which his counterpart saved, in his team’s opening group game.

Not only was he good with his feet, Jose was also a terrific shot-stopper and a passionate player who led by example. The burly star managed to keep two cleansheets during the group stages and then stopped eventual winners France from winning in the ninety minutes of the last 16 clash. Only a Laurent Blanc golden goal would end up separating the two sides.

Jose Luis Chilavert never managed to score on the World Cup stage but his heroics in France saw him named as one of the best keepers of the tournament. When he retired in 2004, he did so after winning 74 caps and scoring 8 goals for his country!

Mexico were another nation that surprised me during this particular World Cup. Their front duo of Luis Hernandez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco were the real standouts.

The long-haired Hernandez was the man that had a keen eye for goals, while Blanco was the maverick that possessed the showboating skills that caught my attention.

In the 70s we saw Johan Cruyff light up the world stage and when he expertly escaped an opponent with an excellent drag back, that move would be forevermore be known as the ‘Cruyff turn’. Blanco managed to pull off his own unique trick and that too would be named after him.

Against South Korea, Blanco would be accosted by two defenders. As they approached him, thinking all avenues were closed to the forward, Blanco would jump between the two players with the ball coming along for the ride. The Blanco hop/Cuauhtemi├▒a was born!

Blanco had a superb dribbling style that often had opponents in knots. He also scored a fine volley with his wrong foot in his side’s draw with Belgium.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco would play in three World Cups for Mexico, managing to score in each of them. But it’s his bunny hop trick that will be his everlasting legacy.

I was lucky enough to see Brian Laudrup terrorise defences live. He plied his trade in Scotland for much of my formative years and he was a hero of mine.

I would often get frustrated when people doubted his talent because he chose to play for Rangers during his peak years. Yet his ability was never doubted again after his outstanding performances for Denmark in 98.

The elegant forward would mesmerise opposition defenders with his great close control and his sublime dribbling. He also had a wonderful eye for a killer pass and ended the tournament with three assists to his name.

The Great Dane shone alongside his brother Michael in this tournament and gave two vintage performances in Denmark’s two knock-out fixtures. Nigeria just couldn’t get near Brian and he dictated play with his smart runs and neat flicks. Laudrup would score from a rebound to help secure Denmark’s passage to the quarter-finals.

In that quarter-final, Denmark gave a gusty display against heavy favourites Brazil. Brian Laudrup was again in top form. His best moment came in the fiftieth minute. A Danish cross wasn’t dealt with by the Brazilians and the ball feel to Laudrup. The attacker kept his head as he controlled the ball and then he smashed it beyond the keeper at his near post. He followed that up with a iconic celebration (pictured above).

Brian Laudrup showed he was a world class performer during that tournament and fully merited his place in Fifa’s all-star team.

The Ducth always seem to provide memorable moments at World Cups and on this occasion it was down to the skill of Dennis Bergkamp.

We can’t deny Bergkamp’s prowess, he’s one of the most gifted footballers to grace our game. He enjoyed a very successful tournament that summer, leading the Netherlands attack and scoring three times.

His first strike was in a win over South Korea in the group stages, then he grabbed a vital equaliser in his side’s win over Yugoslavia in their second round encounter.

But for many, his ultimate World Cup moment came in The Netherlands quarter-final victory over Argentina in Marseille.

I should mention Frank de Boer, who provided an excellent assist. De Boer also had a fantastic tournament and was one of the best defenders in France that summer. As the game hit the ninetieth minute and it was standing at a one goal apiece, it looked like this fiery contest was heading for extra time.

De Boer would then come forward, inside his own half, from the lefthand side. He launched a wonderful long diagonal pass towards the edge of the Argentinian penalty box. While it was a fantastic pinpoint pass, the ball had travelled at some pace and had come down from a great height. For most, it would have been uncontrollable.

Yet Bergkamp manages to take the ball into his stride with a marvellous first touch. His second touch was equally majestic as he took it beyond a defender and towards goal. Dennis then curled his shot with the outside of his boot into the opposite corner. It was one of the best goals ever!

Bergkamp would also score in his side’s penalty shoot-out during their semi-final loss to Brazil. A stunning tournament for a stunning player, summed up with a stunning strike!

I’m a massive fan of the showboaters, especially the ones who use their tricks to get beyond opponents and set-up chances for teammates.

In Jay Jay Okocha, Nigeria had a footballing wizard who had the world wowing every time the ball reached his feet.

The attacking midfielder would use his excellent dribbling technique to get beyond challenges, his drag backs would stun defences and his flicks would bamboozle oncoming markers!

He would be given the freedom to roam. One minute he’d be tormenting the opposition left-back, then minutes later he’d be on the opposing wing turning the opposite full-back inside out and then he’d suddenly be on the ball in the centre and make attempt at goal.

Jay Jay was energetic and raw at this World Cup and beyond anything else he was super exciting to watch! If Nwankwo Kanu and Victor Ikpeba had brought their shooting boots to France then it could’ve been a magical finals for Nigeria as Okocha was providing his attacking teammates with plenty of ammunition.

Okocha was an unrelenting creative force in his counrty’s famous win over Spain. He really was a maestro at this World Cup.

It’s crazy to think that this was Croatia’s first appearance at a World Cup as an independent nation. Yet it was and they managed to secure a third placed finish.

To be fair they had a very talented squad with Robert Jarni, Slaven Bilic, Mario Stanic, Igor Tudor, Dario Simic, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki all within their ranks. It also helps that they had a world-class goalscorer in Davor Suker leading the line!

Suker came into this tournament a Champions League winner with Real Madrid and having scored thirty-four league goals in his last sixty-seven games for the Spanish giants. He also had a lethal left foot.

His confidence certainly didn’t desert him in this major competition. Davor scored in both of his side’s opening two games, helping them to qualify for the knockout stages. His penalty was enough to see off Romania in the next round and then he also struck in his country’s landmark 3-0 win over Germany in the quarter-finals.

Alas Croatia would finally come unstuck in the semis against hosts and eventual winners France but not without their number nine scoring again. Super Suker would end his World Cup campaign with yet another winner, this time in the third placed playoff against the Dutch.

Davor Suker ended up winning the tournament’s golden boot, toping the scoring charts with his six goal tally!

Ronaldo was by far and away the best footballing talent on the planet as he entered this World Cup, with Brazil very much the favourites to hold on to their title.

El Fenomeno┬áwas simply sensational at this tournament, living up to the hype… Well until the final.

No defence could really handle his power or pace (although he didn’t manage to score against Scotland in the opening match). His step-overs would continually see defenders and goalkeepers dumped to the ground.

Ronaldo would find the net in his second outing against Morocco, a perfectly weighted Rivaldo pass was clinically dispatched home with a half volley from outside the area. He then scored a brace to see off Chile in the last sixteen tie. He would then grab his fourth and final goal of the tournament in the semi-final win over Holland, with a well taken left-footed strike.

We can’t fail to mention that dreaded final for Ronaldo. The Brazilian had reportedly suffered from seizures on the eve of the final and he was in hospital on the day of the final. His name was left off the initially teamsheet before a second line-up was revealed with him on it. Speculation mounted that Nike had insisted on his selection given his economic value to them. Whatever the truth of the story, Ronaldo was a ghostly figure on the pitch as France raced on to win the famous trophy.

Ronaldo did win the Golden Ball award for the World Cup in 98, showing us overall he was still the most talented player of the summer. He would also find redemption four years later when he helped Brazil regain the World Cup, scoring twice in the final and winning the Golden Boot in the process.

I thought it was only right that we ended with a winner.

France had an array of talented forwards. None more so than Zinedine Zidane, who scored twice in the final. But Zizou missed a portion of the campaign due to suspension. French coach Aime Jacquet had confidence in all his forward players and that meant he could rotate them during the run-in.

Jacques wasn’t as keen to change his backline. He had top stars in there that he trusted. One such player was right-back Lilian Thuram.

Thuram was quick and possessed a physicality that would frighten most attackers that would come up against him. He was also very smart and had an engine that would see him run up and down the channel all day.

For those that had seen the French defender at Parma, previous to this tournament, they knew he had the skill-set to become one of the very best defenders in the world and he reached those heady heights in this home competition.

In the whole of these finals, France would only concede two goals and Thuram played a key part in that defensive stronghold.

In the semi-final, with France trailing Croatia, the French needed a hero.

It was Lilian Thuram that stepped forward.

Now I should point out that the French right-back actually cost his team that opening goal as he was the defender that had kept Croat scorer Suker onside. He’d make up for it though, as a minute later he found himself slipping in and scoring his first international goal. Not content with that, Lilian (on the 69th minute of play) cut in on his left and he powered in the winner to send his country into the final in Paris!

In his 142 caps for France, those would be Lilian Thrum’s only goals for Les Bleus. He ended the tournament with a winner’s medal and was also named the third best player of the competition!

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