Ben Weich writes for the EPL Talk and Soccer Fan Base blogs. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenWeich
While there may have been more beautiful goals scored, few have been as remarkable as this one. This was a hugely important goal, not only for French football but also for the country as a whole.
France and Croatia were locked at 1-1 in a tight, closely fought World Cup semi-final. Neither team had made it past that stage before, but it was Les Bleus who were undoubtedly playing under the greater pressure. With an exceptionally talented squad, and the advantage of playing at home, 1998 was the year France were expected to finally lift the famous trophy.
But they were playing for much more than just footballing glory. The ’98 France team were one of the first truly multi-ethnic national sides in history. The squad boasted players who could trace their ancestry to Armenia, Algeria, Guadeloupe, New Caledonia, Argentina, Ghana, Senegal, Italy, French Guyana, Portugal, Spain and Martinique. Star player and poster boy for this multi-racial generation, Zinedine Zidane was born in Marseille to Algerian immigrants.
Before the tournament, the Fédération Française de Football had come under fire from the country’s far-right. Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had criticised the side’s mixed make-up, complaining that the team did not look sufficiently French. He complained that the black players didn’t sing the national anthem before matches, and in doing so attempted to make them look unpatriotic. At a time when the country was fraught with racial tension, Les Bleus were playing to protect the future of social integration. They represented French multicultural fraternité.
Having played Davor Šuker onside for Croatia’s opening goal, unassuming right-back Lilian Thuram levelled the match with his first ever international goal. With the tie finely
balanced, both teams were looking to swing the match their way.
Thuram is one of football’s most admirable figures. In the age of players’ excesses and
ostentatious consumerism he is the perfect tonic. Intelligent, articulate, reflective and politically-aware; Thuram embodies all that is missing from today’s professionals. Throughout his entire career, his play was diligent, always putting the team’s needs before his own. Never one to push forward in search of personal glory, he understood exactly what his role required of him and he went about it without fuss. It’s a shame there aren’t more like him.
It’s fitting that it was Thuram who scored arguably the most important goal of France’s World Cup campaign. Unsung hero and member of the rock-solid defensive line which only conceded two goals in the whole tournament, Thuram almost had to be dragged into his own moment of glory.
In the 69th minute, Zidane picks up the ball on the left wing at around the halfway line.
He sees Thuram across the pitch, well inside his own half, reliably occupying his full-back position. The ball is crossed intentionally in front of him, forcing him to advance up the pitch. Outside of his comfort zone, he seems for an instant uncertain – he gestures to Thierry Henry to come nearer, almost as if to ask his teammate what he should do now. He plays the ball into Henry’s feet.
Perhaps it’s the confidence gained from his earlier goal. Perhaps it’s the sheer will to win. But now Thuram does a most uncharacteristic thing – instead of retreating to his
familiar deep role, he surges towards the penalty box with attacking intent. Henry plays the ball back to Thuram but it reaches Croatia’s Robert Jarni first. The move looks over. But Thuram, now pumping full of adrenaline, controls the ball in between his opponent’s legs as he pushes him off the ball. It’s a completely fair challenge, and he shows what an imposing physical presence he is as he totally outmuscles the Croat. Jarni is sent stumbling in the other direction as Thuram shapes to shoot.
What happens next surprises everyone, including his teammates. He lashes at the ball with his left foot, sending it curling around the diving goalkeeper. It bends in to
nestle perfectly inside the post, causing the Stade de France to erupt. Thuram, propping himself up on his knees, places his index finger over his mouth in the classic ‘thinking man’ pose, befitting his future role as a social philosopher. The French players mob him as Fabien Barthez raises his hands to his head in disbelief. “Sensational!” cries the English commentator.
It turned out to be the winning goal. Les Bleus reached the final where they comprehensively defeated Brazil 3-0. The first French team to win the World Cup, they were celebrated as heroes of a new, multicultural France. Thuram, despite going on
to become the most-capped player in French history, never again scored for his country.
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