Friday, 11 June 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part Five, France 98

When I watched Italia 90 with my mates I was just 15 years old without a care in the world. By the time I would watch England play once again in the world’s greatest football tournament, I was 23 years old with my own flat and all the responsibilities that went with it. I had just spilt with my then girlfriend, and the World Cup proved to be a very welcome distraction! England had assured their qualification by gaining the point they needed after a dramatic goalless draw v’s the Italians in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in late 97: a game I recall very well. Despite the lack of goals the game was on a knife-edge throughout and given the importance of the result (especially after the failure to qualify for the previous World Cup in USA 94) my good friend Bolts and me had decided to watch the proceedings away from the partisan (but sometimes distracting) atmosphere of the our local pub (just 100 yards up the road) in favour of my flat. As the game hung in the balance, there was the truly heart-stopping moment in the dying seconds when Vieri headed over when it seemed easier to score. It was almost too much to bare! For the last 20 minutes or so, Bolts and me sat in total silence: not a single word spoken. Then, when the ref put us out of our misery, we both spontaneously jumped from our seats and hugged each other. England was back in the World Cup Finals. Thank God…or should it have been ‘Thank Hod’, as the Sun’s headline read the following morning?

For me, this tournament would be watched from my local pub, The White Lion, in Sawbridgeworth. I was growing ever tired of watching games in such venues (too many idiots who were more interested in throwing beer around), but one notable memory I do have was the whole pub chanting ‘Ang-ler-terre, Ang-ler-terre’ throughout the England games in place of the more standard ‘Eng-er-land’ chant. Thankfully the 3 syllable replacement worked equally as well. France 98 was opened by Scotland’s credible and brave attempts to thwart the mighty Brazilians, eventually loosing the game after an own goal late on. The group matches never really took off for me, with only a few games sticking in my mind; the Italy v’s Chile game amongst them. It appeared the whole world was intrigued by the USA v’s Iran fixture, but despite the hype, it just didn’t have quiet the ‘bitter rivalry’ feel of say a Brazil v’s Argentina fixture (although I appreciate this game transcended football to political opinion). Iran won, by the way, although I doubt the States went in to meltdown as would have been the case in any other nation. Then there was the unbelievable game between South Africa and Denmark in which the Columbian referee, John Tor Rendon, proceded to book 7 players and send off 3 more! Unsurprisingly he never officiated again in the World Cup. England started with a typically unconvincing win over Tunisia that never satisfied the red-top press, and things went considerably downhill with a defeat against Romania (was this the game where the Romanians coloured their hair en-mass?). This all meant a final ‘winner takes all’ group match v’s Columbia, who had recorded a victory v’s Tunisia in their previous game. Thankfully Darren Anderton (I can’t believe I’ve just wrote his name in a blog relating to the World Cup!!!) and the emerging David Beckham sealed a 2-0 victory, the latter with what would go on to be a trademark free-kick. Despite the 8 years wait to see my national team back in the World Cup, things were a little uninspiring at this point. Next up, Argentina in the second round.

In the last 16, FIFA had introduced a ‘Golden Goal’ rule to attempt to promote attacking-minded play should games enter extra-time. Sounded exciting enough, but everyone was pessimistically predicting England would face this agonizing way to fall. In reality, it was far more painful with the dreaded penalty shoot-out ending England’s unconvincing World Cup dreams. At least the dramatic Argentine game left us with some memories of note: some good, some not so good. A young Michael Own took on the Argentine team single-handedly with a goal that must have left even the great Maradona drooling. Beckham’s sending off was harsh (pictured above), but was a petulant error of judgment that would leave him as a national figure of hate. What if Sol’s goal had been allowed to stand? All in all, England had failed to raise themselves for the biggest footballing tournament in the world. If only they had played with the same passion as we had witnessed in Rome in October 97.

The quarter-finals played out their drama with Bergkamp’s wonder goal v’s the Argentines a notable highlight for me. Elsewhere, there was a shock with Croatia beating the Germans comfortably to book a semi-final place. Brazil and France beat the Netherlands and Croatia respectively, with the French victory soured by the Laurent Blanc sending off mid-way through the second half after an innocuous incident with Croatia’s Bilic. Even with a dislike for the French team, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Blanc, who missed the final as a result.

From the moment the World Cup Final kicked off in the impressive Stade de France there was only going to be one winner. For all intents and purposes, it looked like the Brazilians had grown a little bored of World Cup Finals and decided to get the game out of the way and go home to laze about on Copacabana Beach. But back home, Christ the Redeemer must have been hanging his head in shame at the awful Brazilian performance and the bizarre and unforgivable Ronaldo farce less than an hour before kick-off. Arguably one of the best Strikers the world has seen in his prime, Ronaldo was not playing, then he was…then he wasn’t….then he was. Rumors of fits and seizures circulated, but a strangely subdued Ronaldo eventually took to the pitch, but looked genuinely relieved when it was all over. Credit to France, they deserved their World Cup win.

Another World Cup passes. Another chance for England glory ends in the all-to-familiar disappointment. Next up Japan in 2002: a World Cup that for me rates as my least favorite.

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