In 1998, after a 60-year absence, the World Cup returned home to France, its country of birth.
Dreamt up by two noble Frenchman, Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay, the World Cup was first staged in Uruguay in 1930 and didn't take place in France, the country in which it was gloriously conceived, until 1938 at the third time of asking.
Over the ensuing decades, the World Cup expanded and grew in importance, prestige and popularity, so much so that the 1998 competition in France, with its worldwide television audience in the hundreds of millions and corporate sponsorships galore, bore little resemblance to the humble 1938 tournament that was staged on French soil for the first time.
YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY!
- Number of participating teams: 32
- Top scorer: Croatia's Davor Suker (6 goals)
- Number of games: 64
- Total goals scored: 171
- Average goals per game: 2.67
- Highest scoring game: Spain's 6-1 win over Bulgaria on June 24
- Total attendance: 2,785,100
- Average attendance: 43,517
Global interest and marketing aside, the biggest change was the sheer size of the World Cup: whereas 37 nations around the World competed for one of 15 spots in the 1938 finals, 174 countries tired to secure one of the 32 spots up for grabs in 1998.
The expansion from 24 teams in 1994 to 32 in 1998 meant a new format, with the field equally divided into eight groups of four and the top-two finishers in each qualifying for the second round.
The usual suspects (Brazil, Germany, Italy, England, Argentina and the Netherlands) were the hot favourites going into the tournament, as was the host team, playing in its first World Cup since 1986.
With France boasting an exciting roster brimming with world-class talent - Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly to name but a few - expectations were high that Les Bleus would finally come good and win the World Cup.
There were worries, though, that France's lack of quality strikers - Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet only had a handful of international games under their belts, while Christophe Dugarry and Youri Djorkaeff hardly struck fear in the hearts of opposing defenders - would hurt their chances. As it turned out, French fans had little reason to worry as the goals game, albeit from a variety of sources.
Of course, all eyes were on Brazil, and in particular Ronaldo, the 21-year-old goal scorer par excellence and the two-time reigning FIFA world player of the year. An unused substitute four years earlier, Ronaldo was anxious to shine on soccer's biggest stage. With an injured Romario back home, the Inter Milan striker would have to carry the goal-scoring burden for Brazil by himself.
Brazil hardly looked like world champions in the first round as it laboured to a first-place finish in Group A. A difficult 2-1 win over Scotland in the tournament opener on June 10 in Paris was followed by a solid 3-0 victory over Morocco. Norway, second in Group A, stunned the champions when Kjetil Rekdal scored on a penalty in the 89th minute to lift his country to an improbable 2-1 victory.
Lucky to pull out a 2-2 draw with Chile in Bordeaux (Roberto Baggio scored from the penalty spot late in the game), Italy rebounded with convincing victories against Cameroon and Austria to finish in first ahead of the South Americans in Group B. Christian Vieri, the former Juventus striker, was in fine form, scoring four of Italy's seven goals.
The hosts barely broke a sweat in winning all three of their games, brushing aside Denmark, South Africa and Saudi Arabia by a combined score of 9-1 (Henry, Trezeguet, Djorkaeff and Dugarry all found the back of the net) to finish first in Group C ahead of the Danes. The lone blemish for France was Zidane's dismissal against the Saudis when he was red carded for stamping out at Fuad Amin. As a result, the French would be without their playmaker in the second round.
Despite a 6-1 demolition of Bulgaria, Spain lived up to its reputation as perennial underachiever by finishing third in Group D behind Nigeria and Paraguay. The Netherlands and Mexico finished 1-2 in Group E, sending Belgium and South Korea home early, while Germany and Yugoslavia topped Group F - the group was highlighted by a tense battle between Iran, back at the World Cup for the first time since 1978, and the United States, won 2-1 by the Iranians.
Romania upset England 2-1 in Toulouse to finish first in Group G thanks to an injury-time goal from Chelsea defender Dan Petrescu. England rebounded to win its final game, 2-0 against Colombia, and finished second.
Argentina was making plenty of noise in Group H. Led by the lethal Gabriel Batistuta, the Argentines made quick work of World Cup debutantes Jamaica and Japan before polishing off Croatia. Davor Suker proved to be the hero for the Croats, scoring important goals to lead his country to a second-place finish.
Without the suspended Zidane wielding his magic in midfield, France found the going tough against Paraguay in the second round in Lens. It was up to Laurent Blanc to rescue Les Bleus, as the veteran defender scored in extra time in the 113th minute, the World Cup's first ever "golden goal."
A date in the quarter-finals with Italy awaited France after the Italians knocked out Norway 1-0 in Marseille, Vieri scoring in the 18th minute.
MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: Argentina's 3-2 victory over England in the second round. This game had it all. Michael Owen's coming out party. Javier Zanetti's brilliantly worked goal coming off set piece. David Beckham's contentious red card. Tension. Drama. You couldn't ask for more. Honourable mentions go to France's 2-1 victory over Croatia in the semifinals and the Netherlands' 2-1 win over Argentina in the quarter-finals.
MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT: Zinedine Zidane. Yes, Davor Suker was the top scorer, and yes, Ronaldo was given the Golden Ball award as the tournament MVP. But without Zidane pulling the playmaking strings from midfield and dominating games with his dazzling skills - not to mention his two goals in the final against Brazil - France never would have won the World Cup.
SPOTLIGHT: The 1998 World Cup was the first to employ the "golden goal" in games that went to extra time, but the rule was first used in a major tournament at Euro '96 in England - Oliver Bierhoff scored a "golden goal" in the 95th minute to lift Germany to a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic in the final.
The "golden goal" was introduced into soccer to encourage offensive play in extra time in an attempt to limit the number of games decided by penalty shootout. Critics argued that it had the opposite effect, with teams taking an even more cautious approach in extra time knowing that a goal would immediately end the game.
The "golden goal" was used at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan - three "golden goals" were scored - but in February 2004 the International Football Association Board, the body that determines soccer's laws and rules, ruled it would no longer be used to decide games that went to extra time.
AND ANOTHER THING: The 1998 World Cup marked a new era as Joao Havelange stepped down as FIFA president after 24 years on the job. Sepp Blatter, FIFA's former general secretary, replaced Havelange after winning an election two days prior to the opening game of the competition.
Blatter has had a tough time of it since succeeding Havelange. His tenure as president has been blemished by allegations of financial irregularities and backroom dealings. Blatter was re-elected in 2002, but was dogged by bribery accusations made by an African delegate who said he was offered money in exchange for his vote.
A German journalist once famously proclaimed, "Sepp Blatter has 50 new ideas every day and 51 of them are bad." It's a sentiment shared by many, not the least of which is Brazil, who was forced to qualify for the 2006 World Cup after winning in 2002 - Blatter changed the longstanding rule that stipulated the reigning champions automatically qualified for the next World Cup.
Blatter does have his supporters, who point to his success in bringing the 2010 World Cup to South Africa (the first to take place on African soil) and for taking on soccer's richest clubs to ensure they release their star players for national team duty.
In Paris, Ronaldo scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Chile, setting up a quarter-final matchup with Denmark, 4-1 winners against Nigeria. Germany clawed back from a goal down to score two late goals (Jurgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff doing the damage) against Mexico in Montpellier, while in Bordeaux, Suker's goal from the penalty spot in the first half was enough to guide Croatia to victory over Romania.
The Netherlands booked its place in the quarter-finals - but just barely - when Edgar Davids scored in injury time to lift the Dutch to a 2-1 win over Yugoslavia in Toulouse.
Unquestionably, the match of the round, and indeed of the tournament, took place in St Etienne when old World Cup rivals England and Argentina renewed acquaintances.
A true classic in every sense of the world, the teams traded early penalty-shot goals (Batistuta for Argentina, Alan Shearer for England) before an 18-year-old Michael Owen announced his presence to the world, going on a dashing solo run that carved up the Argentine defence before sliding the ball past goalkeeper Carlos Roa.
Argentina, however, would not be denied, and a smartly worked free kick just before halftime saw Javier Zanetti score after catching the English defence napping.
The game turned, famously, in the 47th minute when David Beckham was red carded for petulantly kicking out at Diego Simeone. A foul, maybe, but certainly Simeone exaggerated the offence by falling down so easily? No matter. Beckham was sent off and England had to play the rest of the game shorthanded.
Which they did, valiantly, before falling to their South American conquerors once again, this time in a penalty shootout.
France travelled back to Paris for its game against Italy, a dull and defensive affair that, even with the magical Zidane back in action, ended 0-0 after extra time. To penalties, then, which the French duly won when Luigi Di Biagio's shot sailed over the crossbar.
In Nantes, Brazil survived a bit of a scare against Denmark, relying on two goals from Barcelona ace Rivaldo to lead them to a hard-fought 3-2 win. Croatia exacted revenge on Germany for its quarter-final loss at Euro '96 in England, racking up a surprisingly easy 3-0 victory in Lyon. Davor Suker, in a rich vein of form, iced the cake with a goal in 85th minute, his fourth of the competition.
Argentina was involved in another thriller, this time against the Netherlands in Marseille. With the contest tied 1-1, the back-and-forth affair seemed destined for extra time. But Dennis Bergkamp, the classy and elegant forward from Arsenal, had other ideas as he scored one of the greatest goals ever at the World Cup in the 89th minute.
Bergkamp calmly controlled a 50-yard pass in the air from teammate Frank de Boer, sidestepped Argentina defender Roberto Ayala and blasted the ball into the roof of the net past a helpless Carlos Roa.
The French public, somewhat indifferent at the beginning of the tournament, began to passionately back Les Bleus as they headed into their semifinal encounter with Croatia in Paris. Suker struck first in the 46th minute to give the Croats a 1-0 lead, but it wouldn't last. A minute later defender Lilian Thuram exchanged passes with Youri Djorkaeff down the flank before equalizing for France.
Then, in the 69th minute, Thuram stripped Robert Jarni of the ball and went on a marauding run before scoring. France was up 2-1 thanks to magnificence of Thuram, the unlikeliest of goal-scorers. France held on for the victory, but not before Laurent Blanc received a questionable red card in the final 15 minutes, ruling him out for the final.
In Marseille, Ronaldo put Brazil 1-0 up against the Dutch at the start of the second half, but Patrick Kluivert equalized the tantalizing affair in the 87th minute. Extra time settled nothing, and Brazil went on to win 4-2 on penalties. The Netherlands were out, but not without winning the universal plaudits of neutral fans for their entertaining and attacking play.
Before going home, the Dutch still had to play the third-place game, which they lost 2-1 to Croatia, Suker scoring the winning goal, his sixth overall, in the 35th minute.
There was controversy long before a ball was even kicked on the day of the final at the new Stade de France just north of Paris, resulting in one of the biggest mysteries in World Cup history that, to this day, has yet to be properly explained.
Prior to the game, journalists in the press box were stunned to discover Ronaldo's name was missing from the starting team sheets. It was believed at first that his troubled knee was bothering him, but then it quickly emerged that the Brazilian star had some sort of seizure while sleeping in his hotel room.
Teammate Roberto Carlos quickly alerted Brazilian officials and Ronaldo was rushed to the hospital, but local doctors could not find anything physically wrong with him. Had Ronaldo simply "cracked" under the pressure? It's a question that remains unanswered.
Ronaldo arrived at the stadium later that evening and although there were legitimate concerns over his mental health, Brazilian coach Marcelo Zagallo - reportedly at the insistence of Ronaldo - decided to put him in the starting lineup. Reports later suggested that Ronaldo was given some sort of sedative and that Nike, the team's sponsor, exerted immense pressure in forcing Brazil to play their star client.
Whatever the truth, it was clear from the opening kickoff that Ronaldo was not fit to play and Brazil paid the consequences. Robbed of the services of the usually deadly Ronaldo, the champions were limp in attack and barely mounted a serious challenge against the French.
France ran roughshod over their opponents, dictating the pace of the game and toying with the fragile Brazilian defence.
With the spotlight cast on him, Zinedine Zidane rose to the occasion and cemented his status as the best player in the world. In the 27th minute, an unmarked Zizou scored a majestic header off a corner kick from Emmanuel Petit to spot France a 1-0 lead.
With Brazil on the back foot, French forward Stephane Guivarc'h squandered a glorious scoring chance. France, though, would not be denied. Just before halftime, Djorkaeff delivered a dangerous corner kick into the box that Zidane duly headed into the net past Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel.
A stunned Brazil barely bothered the French defence in the second half, unable to put together a half-decent scoring chance with Ronaldo in a zombie-like state. When French defender Marcel Desailly was sent off for a horrible foul on Cafu in the 68th minute, it seemed, for the briefest of moments, that Brazil might have new life.
Even while playing a man short, France still called the tune, dominating possession before sealing the victory with a goal in the 90th minute. Patrick Vieira sliced open the brittle Brazilian defence with a timely pass to Petit - a thorn in Brazil's side the entire game - who scored on a clear breakaway to make it 3-0.
Humiliated and embarrassed, the Brazilian players hung their heads in shame while French captain Didier Deschamps collected the World Cup trophy amidst thunderous applause from the emotional crowd at the Stade de France.
The country celebrated in style with over a million fans dancing the night away on the Champs Elysées and singing those immortal words from the national anthem, La Marseillaise: "Our day of Glory has arrived."
After a 68-year wait, France, the country that bequeathed the World Cup to the world, were champions of the world as the cup had finally come "home." And somewhere, Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay were smiling.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
- France joined a very exclusive club, as only six other nations have won the World Cup: Uruguay, Italy, Brazil, Germany, England and Argentina.
- Germany's Lothar Matthaus (1982-98) and Mexico's Antonio Carbajal (1950-66) are the only players to have appeared in five World Cups. Matthaus holds the record for most career games with 25. Italy's Paolo Maldini (1990-2002) is second with 23.
- Robert Prosinecki, who represented Yugoslavia in 1990 and Croatia in 1998, is the only player to have scored for two countries at the World Cup.
- With eight teams added to the field for the finals, a record 174 countries entered the qualifying competition. Italy was eliminated via penalty shootout for the third straight time, having previously lost in 1990 to Argentina and to Brazil in 1994.
- Brazil's 2-1 loss to Norway was its first in the opening round at the World Cup since 1966.
- Morocco's Said Belqola was the first African to officiate a World Cup final.
- Denmark's Ebbe Sand scored the fastest goal by a substitute at the World Cup. The Dane scored a mere 16 seconds after coming onto the field in the second half of Denmark's 4-1 win over Nigeria.
- This was Croatia's first appearance at the World Cup, having competed in previous competitions as part of Yugoslavia.