For as long as they have been played, World Cup finals have mattered. As a spectacle, they transcend sport, captivating more than just football fans. But few have mattered as much as the 1998 World Cup final between hosts France and defending champions Brazil. This was a match with a cultural significance as much as a sporting one.
The 1998 World Cup was set against the backdrop of a divided host nation. In many ways, France was in turmoil, struggling with rising unemployment as divisions between cultural groups opened up. Racial tensions and violence led to the resurgence of the Front Nationale, a far-right political group which had first risen to prominence during the 1980s.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front Nationale, complained that the multi-cultural team, dubbed ‘The Rainbow Team’ picked by coach Aime Jacquet was not “French” enough, that they didn’t represent their public. In reality, though, Les Blues were the perfect reflection of their country, embraced by a nation keen to use the World Cup to force socio-economic change.
Les Blues started slowly, scraping past Paraguay in the last 16 before beating Italy on penalties in the quarters following a goalless draw and coming from behind against Croatia in the semis. But momentum built over the course of the tournament, culminating in the final meeting with Brazil at the State de France, itself an image of a new France. For many, Brazil were the favourites. They had the best player in the world, after all; Ronaldo. But Les Blues blew them apart, with a double from Zinedine Zidane and a late strike from Emmanuel Petit securing an epoch-making victory.
In Zidane, France couldn’t have found a more fitting figurehead. The playmaker, then at Juventus, was one of the best players on the planet at the time, but his resonance was down to more than just his footballing ability. The son of Algerian parents, Zidane became the face of a new France. When over a million fans packed the Champs-Elysees to celebrate the country’s first ever World Cup triumph, it was Zidane’s face projected on to the Arc de Triomphe with the accompanying message “Zidane Président!”
“That’s when I realised how powerful sport is, even if I can’t pretend to completely understand it,” a young Thierry Henry said, summing up how he and his teammates had captured so much more than just a football trophy. They had set a symbolic precedent for the future of France. ‘The Rainbow Team’ provided an unavoidable metaphor.
It’s widely believed that Les Blues’ 1998 World Cup win changed France, that what happened 20 years ago altered the course of an entire country. That’s not entirely true. Almost as soon as the ticker-tape settled on the Champs-Elysees, as soon as the crowds had gone home, divisions across the nation, between cultural groups, opened up again.
Just four years after the famous win over Brazil, Le Pen’s Front Nationale would poll 17 percent of the vote in the 2002 general election, with their race-related rhetoric striking a chord with many. In 2011, controversy engulfed French football when leaked tapes captured then national team manager and 1998 World Cup winner Laurent Blanc and other officials discussing race quotas which would limit the number of black and Arab players in the France set-up.
The notion that the 1998 World Cup pushed through a social change in France is largely a myth, but it did encapsulate a certain moment in the country’s history. The sight of Paris decked out in red, white and blue, the pictures of a multi-cultural team projected on to France’s national icon, live long in the memory. It was the image of optimism, hope in the face of adversity. It was a revolution, of sorts and it revolved around the triumph of a football team.