I’ve heard it said that the World Cup you remember most fondly tends to be the one that fell closest to your 10th birthday. I was 11 years old during France ’98, and that couldn’t ring truer.
I remember rushing to a small field around the corner from my house after England’s 2-0 group stage win over Colombia to practise bending David Beckham-esque free kicks between two conveniently placed trees.
Similar was the case after Michael Owen’s solo slalom against Argentina, and Dennis Bergkamp’s elegant masterpiece versus the same side.
"Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders, Grizz Khan & Jack Gallagher to look back on France '98 as part of the 'Our World Cup' series. We take a trip down memory lane - join us!'
The 1998 World Cup was debating Beckham’s red card on the school playground. It was Mustapha Hadji’s red Puma Kings. It was wishing I could save enough pocket money to buy that gorgeous Nigeria kit.
But above all, it was about one man. One phenomenon. Ronaldo.
The tournament kicked off on 10 June, but the ’98 World Cup began in essence a couple of months earlier, in a nondescript airport. That was the scene of a Nike commercial featuring the Brazilian national team (shot by Hollywood director John Woo, it was actually filmed across three airports: Galeao International in Rio, Milan’s Malpensa and Barcelona Airport). It showed the Brazilian players using their trademark skills to evade security guards as they dribbled around the terminal.
It ended with Ronaldo racing clear and staring down a makeshift goal in the form of two security bollards. An expectant crowd gathered to watch the game’s biggest star strike into the unguarded target …and Ronaldo hit the post.
"Whenever my friends and I replicated the iconic ad – while singing a garbled version of 'Mas Que Nada', the commercial’s samba soundtrack – I’d take aim at trees or lamp posts. I wanted to miss like Ronaldo."
Whenever my friends and I replicated the iconic ad – while singing a garbled version of “Mas Que Nada”, the commercial’s samba soundtrack – I’d take aim at trees or lamp posts. I wanted to miss like Ronaldo.
Such failure was unthinkable in France. Ronaldo burst on to the European scene as a teenager with PSV, then produced one of the great individual seasons with Barcelona, scoring 47 goals in 49 games, before joining Inter for a world-record fee in the summer of 1997. He was a young superstar en route to immortality.
France ‘98 was to be his coronation.
From the outset, opponents sought to slow him by foul means. Scotland’s Billy McKinlay left stud marks on his ankle, Morocco’s Said Chiba left more on his thigh, but Ronaldo refused to be stopped. As Brazil marched to a second successive final, he scored four goals and registered three assists, along the way showcasing his otherworldly skillset.
He showed his lethal accuracy when he drove in a 20-yarder against Morocco, his balletic grace and speed as he dashed away from two defenders to slide the ball to Bebeto for an unmissable tap-in in the same game, and his sheer strength with how he held off Phillip Cocu before slotting home against Holland in the semi-final. He was power and precision; deftness and velocity.
Ronaldo had watched on four years earlier as Romario and Bebeto fired Brazil to a fourth title. He was a 17-year-old unused substitute then, an apprentice learning at the feet of masters. By ‘98, he was a 21-year-old megastar. Everyone expected him to make this World Cup his own, but he couldn’t bear the weight of that expectation.
Distressed team-mates found him in a convulsive state in his room at the team hotel on the afternoon of the final. While the others travelled to the Stade de France, Ronaldo was taken to a clinic in Paris for tests. He rushed to the stadium as kick-off neared, clutching documents confirming a clean bill of health, and pleaded to be allowed to play.
So Ronaldo played. But if his team-mates had looked as though they’d seen a ghost when they found him fitting at the hotel, Ronaldo played like one in the final. He was, understandably, a shell of himself and Brazil were beaten 3-0 by the host nation.
The airport advert had been prophetic: another mystifying near miss. One that no 11-year-old was rushing to replicate.