David Owen

Can it really be 25 years since the France 1998 World Cup, my baptism into the mad, magnificent world of sports mega-events?

I had a top-floor flat near Place de la Concorde at the time, and my first memory of the tournament proper was looking down on two kilted Scotsmen and a pair of yellow-shirted Brazilians as they made their way good-humouredly to the great square where the guillotine was once located, to witness the culmination of an Opening Ceremony that had seen four giants inch their way portentously along the most scenic streets of central Paris.

I was not massively impressed, though I now see that the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik thought that the "vague internationalist symbolism - not to speak of the snail-like pace - seemed the right allegory for the tournament".*

But once the Glasgow Rangers striker Gordon Durie had kicked the competition off in the new Stade de France, in a match pitting the Scots against mighty Brazil, I quickly became intoxicated with the irresistible momentum of the event.

I had been covering the preparations for months. Checking back, I see that the first notable World Cup-related event I attended was a press conference given by Lionel Jospin, the then French Prime Minister.

From the splendour of a lavishly-decorated white and gold room in the Matignon Palace, the Socialist politician declared that members of his Government would travel to matches on public transport.

The Communist Sports Minister, Marie-George Buffet, added for good measure: "Those who do not use public transport to get to the Stade de France run the risk of missing the first half."

As the clock ticked down to the big kickoff, with the country stubbornly downbeat - almost no-one would admit to thinking that the national team had a chance of victory, while a pilots’ strike risked projecting an embarrassingly old-fashioned image of France to the watching world - my duties took me off in a variety of different directions.

At another press conference, the boss of SNCF promised that the railway operator would be "the network that irrigates the World Cup". And, to be fair, he was as good as his word, with a little help from nearly 30,000 railway workers who were involved in one way or another.

Hosts France won the 1998 FIFA World Cup, with Zinedine Zidane scoring a brace in the final against Brazil ©Getty Images
Hosts France won the 1998 FIFA World Cup, with Zinedine Zidane scoring a brace in the final against Brazil ©Getty Images

I checked out stadia like the Geoffroy Guichard in industrial Saint-Etienne, mythical French team of the 1960s, where England’s latest World Cup dream would later go up in smoke after an attritional battle against Argentina.

And I visited Yssingeaux (population 6,700), where, in a surreal touch, the Iran national team would be staying on the premises of the École Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie. 

"We will support them against the USA", the local Mayor, a former Government Minister, told me, as I struggled to tear my mind away from the Citroën 2CV, perfectly sculpted in chocolate, we had encountered during my tour of the school.

Finally, I dropped in at the Manoir de Gressy near Paris, where the tournament’s 67 referees and assistant referees were to be kept in luxurious isolation.

"They have supplied us all with a mobile phone we can use," said one official - no small thing when subscribers to mobile telephone services in France still made up only 12, yes, 12 per cent of the population.

Once the action had started, a highlight of sorts for me was taking my place among a small posse of reporters as Zinedine Zidane - destined to win the competition for the hosts with his two headed goals in the final against Brazil - reflected on his sending off in France’s comfortable group-stage win versus Saudi Arabia.

According to the note in my blue Pupitre notebook, this is what he said, in his extremely quiet voice. 

"I think it was fairly harsh. It is always difficult to take a red card…I have the impression that it deserved a yellow card."

Members of France's 1998 FIFA World Cup-winning squad pictured at an event in 2018 to mark the 20th anniversary of the triumph ©Getty Images
Members of France's 1998 FIFA World Cup-winning squad pictured at an event in 2018 to mark the 20th anniversary of the triumph ©Getty Images

My notebook also records that he was wearing a "huge" wrist-watch and "he looks you in the eye."

If there was a lowlight, it was my various stretches on hooligan watch, though even this had its moments.

For example, ahead of the England v Colombia match in the northern mining town of Lens, I noticed three England fans and two Colombians sitting on facing park benches, so close their knees were almost brushing. 

The Englishmen were debating what was written on the back page of The Sun; the Colombians were playing chess.

I suppose that the tournament’s lasting significance is that it taught a new generation of the inimitably cerebral French elite the power of sport to lift a nation and, hence potentially to facilitate implementation of their grand designs.

It may hence have reinforced French determination to land another Olympic Games.

We also hoped that success by such a conspicuously multi-ethnic French team might help the cause of racial minorities striving to get on in French society.

Perhaps it did, but I suspect Gopnik’s is a more realistic take. "The ability of sports to solve social problems is limited," he wrote, "the Dream Team didn’t change black income levels".*

*Quotations taken from Gopnik’s charming book, first published in 2000, Paris to the Moon.