In 1998, Britain was in turmoil. No one knew how to cope with the disastrous news.
Geri had left the Spice Girls.
I know it was hard for anyone living through that time, so apologies for bringing up bad memories- but other stuff happened that summer too, namely a World Cup in France. What follows are my memories of the tournament, what I was up to and a few bits of French football and geographic vocabulary to help you along the way.
To lighten the mood, Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds re-recorded their smash hit from two years prior Three Lions which was again a chart-topper, though featuring an unfortunate reference to Gazza being “as good as before” (he was dropped, and didn’t take it very well). We also had Vindaloo to chant along to, in an era where sensible lyrics were at a premium (Life by Des’Ree anyone?).
Scotland were there too, with a tame Del Amitri effort called “Don’t Come Home Too Soon” being oddly prophetic.
Contre son Camp (own goal)
June 10th 1998 was a warm day in Newtownards, but alas it was also a school day and Brazil v Scotland (Le Brésil contre l’Ecosse) kicked off at 4:30. No chance I was getting back in time, not when I have to wait half an hour for a bus to drive past that wasn’t full. So I had a radio with me, where I heard Cesar Sampaio score the tournament’s first goal, a rather ignominious deflection of his shoulder. Not that he cared. I got to my house in time to hear that Scotland were awarded a penalty, and got to the TV just as John Collins tucked it away.
Scotland were spirited, having a couple of decent chances, until Cafu had a shot in the penalty area, taking Jim Leighton by surprise. It hit off his chin, hit the unfortunate Tom Boyd as he was running back and went in. Brazil held on for a 2-1 victory.
At school, it was exam time; we had exams twice a year, I think to get us used to it before doing ones that actually counted for stuff. It was competitive; in prep school, you got ranked according to how you did in your exams and where you sat in the class depended on your rank. I had finished 5th in my class the previous year (up from 22nd out of 24 the previous term) , and was determined to improve on that; unfortunately, the “big school” didn’t have rankings, preferring instead to just tell you your mark privately. There were still prizes up for grabs for coming top of the class though.
My maths teacher had taught us about matrices. Personally, I found the whole multiplication thing a bit stressful and wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Not sure what happened with that. Anyway, the World Cup, being in France, gave me a lot of vocabulary to show off with and (I think) I got 98%. To my horror, I came third. Disastre. After that, it was pretty much plain sailing until the end of term. Some of the teachers allowed us to watch the football instead of teaching us. Frankly, learning about World War I might have been a bit more interesting than the Paraguy v Bulgaria (Le Paraguay contre la Bulgarie). We saw a bit of England v Tunisia (L’Angleterre contre la Tunisie) too in the random 20 minute maths lesson we had on a Monday. Better than learning anything, I guess.
Two games stand out from the second group stage: USA v Iran (Les Etats-unis contre l’Iran) and Romania v England (La Roumanie contre l’Angleterre). There was a lot of hype surrounding the former, but I didn’t know why as both sides were fairly rubbish. My mum explained that it was all political, which explained the awkwardness of the pre-match joint team photo. Iran won 2-1 and celebrated like they had won the whole competition; such were their celebrations, they didn’t seem to be all that bothered about turning up for their next game against Germany (L’Allemagne), which, if they had won, would have seen them qualify.
Romania v England was more interesting as it mattered for something. Viorel Moldovan put Romania ahead following some woeful defending; it was all England thereafter. A teenager called Michael Owen took the field with 15 minutes to go and hit an equaliser 6 minutes later. With 9 minutes to go co-commentator Kevin Keegan exclaimed that
There’s only one team that can win this now and that’s England!
In fairness, this wasn’t such a daft thing to say as England were easily on top, but the commentator’s curse (also the ITV curse) saw a long ball reach Dan Petrescu at the other end and he was able to slot it in through Seaman’s legs from a tight angle. 2-1. Michael Owen had a late shot hit the post but it was done with goals.
Elsewhere, Zinedine Zidane was sent off (sadly, not for the last time in a World Cup match) for reacting badly to a foul committed on him against Saudi Arabia (L’Arabie Saoudite). He would redeem himself later, but not the best of starts.
School was keeping us busy by getting us to do various football-related tasks, but in truth, most of the teachers were phoning it in at that point. My younger brother had to write a report on the Scotland v Norway (L’Ecosse contre la Norvège) match and wrote extensively about a player called “Jury” (actually Gordon Durie) who had an eventful game.
Coup Franc (Free Kick)
The last round of group games was eventful. Chile (Le Chili) managed to qualify by drawing all three games, while Austria (L’Autriche) had a curious record of scoring only three goals, all in injury team: it did not help them progress against Italy (L’Italie) though.
Later that evening, we watched Scotland get hammered 3-0 by Morocco (Le Maroc) who were unfortunate to still get knocked out by virtue of Norway’s surprise victory over second-string Brazil.
Spain (L’Espagne) had a similar fate, stuffing Bulgaria 6-1, but going out due to Nigeria’s (La Nigeria) 1-3 defeat to Paraguay. There was a power cut at our house on the night England played Colombia (La Colombie). We listened to the first few minutes on the radio, meaning we missed seeing Darren “sicknote” Anderton’s goal. It came on a few minutes later to see David Beckham put a free kick away, meaning England coasted through.
Plucky underdogs Jamaica managed to get a win over fellow minnows Japan (La Jamaïque contre le Japon) but by that stage they were both gone, with Argentina (L’Argentine) winning the group over Croatia (La Croatie)to set up a clash with England. Group Stage done.
We went back to our wall-chart predictions, and the less said about mine the better. Still, there wasn’t long until the holidays so banter chances were minimal.
But en Or (Golden Goal)
We got our exam results back and I’d won a couple of prizes, which I don’t remember, but they certainly won’t have been for English or any of the other “waffly subjects that don’t have right answers”. “How does the writer make the passage humorous?” Said the English exam. “It’s not funny” is not a valid answer, apparently.
There was a new innovation at this World Cup, the Golden Goal: the first team to score in extra time (Prolongation) would win the game. The third of the eight knockout games was the first to feature this innovation and it came from an unlikely source: France struggled to break down Paraguay in 90 minutes, with defender Laurent Blanc firing in with 7 minutes to go. There was no chance of a Paraguayan comeback and France were through.
The last day of term saw England face Argentina in an epic showdown. I was supporting England, I think the last time I would do so in a major tournament. The first half had everything. Two dodgy penalties, a fantastic Michael Owen goal, and a well worked free-kick meant the score was 2-2 at half time. My older brother left the room at half time, I presumed to go to the toilet. When he did not return after half time, I was anxious, because he would miss anything that happened. And happen it did. David Beckham got himself sent off for kicking Diego Simeone. I went to find him, and was gutted to find him watching the match in the other room while drinking a hot chocolate. He gave me a look that said “go away”. 13-year-old me couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to watch it with us and I assumed it was because I was being annoying. I went back to the front room sad and didn’t say anything the rest of the match.
David Batty missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out (Kevin Keegan predicted he would score it, doubling down on his bad predicting fortune). I went to bed unhappy for that and what happened with my brother. I thought that somehow I had annoyed him and that he just couldn’t hack me getting excited.
He was 15 so I can guess this was a moody teenager thing but I can still feel how gutted I was when I saw him on his own. But I would follow suit two years later. I think we preferred to experience these things on our own because we wanted to be our own people (three boys four years apart will be like that)- even TV shows we all enjoyed we would avoid watching together. If we did, we would do so in silence. This is such a stupid thing and there’s so much to regret about it.
Tirs au But (Penalty Shoot-Out)
We went off on holiday after that, first to Norfolk, and then to Cumbria, both for a week. I’ll be honest that neither of these holidays was particularly memorable beyond my getting frustrated about Wimbledon being on the TV loads. We did go to Windsor while my little brother went to Legoland. I was more excited that we got to go to a Little Chef on the way back.
We watched the Netherlands (Les Pays-Bas) face Argentina in one quarter-final. We were supporting the dutch since Argentina had put out England, and we were not disappointed. Two quick-fire goals in the first half were eclipsed by two sendings-off in the second: Artur Numan first for two yellows, then Ariel Ortega for a bizarre head-butt of Edwin van der Sar. Both sides down to ten men, but it doesn’t mean that Dennis Bergkamp’s winner was any less special. He killed the long ball with one touch, outwitted a defender with the second, and fired past Roa with a third. Game over.
Elsewhere, the Germans were routed 3-0 by debutants Croatia, which would start the spell of an era of German mediocrity (and I include the 2002 World Cup in this as they got lucky with the draw there).
In the semi-finals, The Netherlands showed that they can be as good a match as England when it comes to penalty shoot-out losses by losing out to Brazil. The other saw Lilian Thuram’s only two goals for France give Les Bleus a comeback victory over a somewhat unlucky Croatia. The final would take place on my 14th birthday.
Jour de Gloire (Day of Glory)
It was a Sunday so we went to a local Methodist church in the village we were visiting- we didn’t leave the apartment the rest of the day because the British Grand Prix was on and it was a good watch as it rained and there was a good dose of controversy on the side (we didn’t often get to watch the British GP as we were frequently out of the country). I got my first electric razor for my birthday, plus a lot of food. And a World Cup final too, that’s not bad going.
There was drama as Ronaldo, Brazil’s golden boy (not to be confused with the Portuguese version who has better abs and isn’t afraid to show it) was initially left off the team sheet and then appeared on it again. He had had a fit and shouldn’t have played, but the rumour was that Nike had insisted that he play. We’ll not know the truth beyond him being out of sorts during the game.
Two corners, and two Zidane headed goals, and France were on top. Petit added a third, and that was that.
“For eternity” said L’Equipe. That night, at least, it was hard to argue.
Des Lynam rounded it off with the best closing montage I can remember. Even after 20 years, it is a joy to watch, with Kipling and Fauré’s Pavane setting the mood perfectly.
Japan and South Korea (Corée du Sud) would have much to live to.