A new month in 2014 brings about my final selection of reminiscences regarding France 98. I hope to continue this series right up to the start of Brazil 2014, though I can probably squeeze 2006 and particularly 2010 into one post. Anyway, back to the late 1990s.
The undoubted “surprise package” of the 1998 World Cup was the excellent Croatia side, who pleasantly shocked many a football fan by taking third place in France. They were a side packed full of talent. At the back, the reliable Slaven Bilic and Igor Stimac. In the middle, a world-class creative hub with Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban. And up , the deadly goalscoring exploits of Davor Suker. It’s fair to say that Croatia reached their peak as a footballing nation in 1998.
It’s a shame, then, that despite their excellent 3-0 win over the ageing Germans in the quarter-finals, the aforementioned Suker’s Golden Boot win and that timeless red-square-checkerboard shirt, there is one memory of Croatia in the 1998 World Cup that sticks in my head. And it involved a man who I otherwise have a great deal of respect for.
Croatia surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals in 1998. In their quest to reach a World Cup final in their first finals tournament, they had to defeat the hosts, France. With the French having gone behind to a Suker opener seconds after the restart, Lilian Thuram had somehow pulled them ahead (scoring what turned out to be the only two goals of his international career). A free kick to France on the left was turned into the area, and in doing so Laurent Blanc and Slaven Bilic were having a bit of a pushing and shoving match. Blanc’s left hand connected with Bilic’s chin in the melee. Bilic hit the floor clutching face in “agony”; the France captain and scorer of an unlikely golden goal against Paraguay in the second round would miss the final. France held onto win; for me that incident sullied what had otherwise been an excellent tournament for the Croatians.
Well, they were fairly terrible in the end. But for a couple of weeks in 1998, the Jamaican football team (as the bobsleigh team does at every Winter Olympics they manage to qualify for) became everyone’s second team. Drawn in a group with Argentina, Croatia and Japan, it was clear from the off that the “Reggae Boyz” would be lucky to get to the last 16. And so it proved, but with no little entertainment along the way.
Their opening game saw them face fellow World Cup newcomers Croatia. Despite Robbie Earle equalising Mario Stanic’s opener, the Croatians’ class shone through and saw them win the match 3-1. Earle, like a number of other players in the Jamaica squad, had been born in England but qualified due to his Jamaican descent. Next for the Jamaicans came the mighty Argentina, with Gabriel “Batigol” Batistuta himself scoring a 10-minute hat-trick as the chaps in light blue and white stripes won 5-0 against their Caribbean opponents.
Jamaica were not to leave without a point, however. In their final match, two goals from star player Theodore Whitmore (who later on in his career would play 3 times for Livingston) were enough to beat Japan 2-1. Jamaica haven’t returned to a World Cup since – something they have in common with Scotland.
FIFA: Road to the World Cup `98
1998 saw another innovation, and this time it wasn’t an unwelcome piece of idiocy dreamed up by FIFA. This time, it was the tie-in video game. While an official World Cup 98 game was issued during the tournament itself, the purist’s choice was undoubtedly Road to the World Cup 98 (RTWC 98), in effect that year’s FIFA game. While boasting what at the time was a commentary dream team of John Motson and Andy Gray (how things have changed, particularly where Gray is concerned), its main attractions were to be found elsewhere.
Firstly, it was (I think) the last FIFA game to have an indoor mode. You could do five a sides! With real players! That role has of course now been taken by FIFA Street, which I’ve never played but apparently awards points for tricks rather than goals. EH. It also featured every international team as well as the club sides, so you could do Aberdeen v Sao Tome and Principe if you really, really wanted to.
What it will be remembered most of all for, by me anyway, is two completely useless features. Firstly, you could slide tackle your opponent’s goalkeeper and get sent off. Perfect for letting off a bit of steam; not so good for winning football matches. Secondly, and rather more frustratingly, it was very easy (particularly if you were playing the game on a 100MHz PC with a ropey joystick) to accidentally kick the ball into your own net with the goalkeeper. Happy memories.
Up next, some World Cup 2002 snippets.