It seems strange to claim that a World Cup victory could have had more of a negative effect than a positive on a footballing nation, particularly one that then went on to win the European championship immediately afterwards. But that is what happened to France in 1998 after their one and only World Cup final victory over Brazil at the Stade de France.
France’s triumph on home soil was seen as a miraculous feat, a snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat. Les Bleus approached the tournament with little hope of winning the thing, indeed it was feared by the press in particular that the team would embarrass themselves as hosts.
Aime Jacquet was under fire and an encouraging performance at Euro 96 was the only thing keeping him in a job. There had even been calls for him to resign from the position after the team’s farcical third-placed showing at Le Tournoi in 1997, a warm-up tournament for the follow year’s World Cup involving France, England, Italy and Brazil.
In fact, Jacquet had only got the senior job by default in the first place. Having been Gerard Houllier’s assistant as national team coach, he was in the right place at the right time. Jacquet stepped in to replace Houllier as an interim when he was moved sideways after a disastrous qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup.
The team responded under Jacquet, having failed to reach the showpiece event held in the United States of America, and he was appointed on a permanent basis. Being made full-time coach, he was able to make some of the tough decisions that French football had needed to make for some time.
France's national team was in dire need of a complete overhaul. Jacquet switched the focus of the team from the likes of Eric Cantona, David Ginola and Jean-Pierre Papin to the new generation of talent being led by the likes of Zinedine Zidane.
Ginola had suffered a spectacular fallout with previous incumbent Houllier, being accused of “murdering” France and their chances of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup after defeat to Bulgaria, a feud that was only settled last year. He was marginalised by Jacquet and eventually made his last appearance for his country in 1995, three years before the World Cup on home soil.
Essentially, Jacquet’s appointment opened the door to a generation of brilliant talent that would not only go on to win the 1998 World Cup, but also Euro 2000. Some of the players that rose to the fore from that group went on to be some of the best in Europe. Blessed with an exceptional generation of players, the team included stars that would go on to have a massive impact on European football.
Zidane was undoubtedly the greatest talent from that crop and had already moved to Juventus from Girondins de Bordeaux in 1996. ‘Zizou’ starred in the final, netting two goals to etch his name into French football history. He joined Real Madrid three years later after two more seasons of success in Italy, becoming arguably one of the greatest footballers of all time.
FC Metz midfielder Robert Pires would go on to join Marseille later that summer before moving to England to join Arsenal two years later. But at the time of the World Cup, he was more experienced than many members of the upcoming golden generation with 14 caps. Even Zidane for instance, before the tournament started, only had 33 international appearances to his name.
Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira was just 21 years old back then, but he had already played two seasons with the Gunners after a move from AC Milan. His cameo in the final against Brazil, where he set up Emmanuel Petit’s third goal, was a taste of things to come. He would go on to represent Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester City, not to mention captain Arsenal through one of the most successful periods in their history.
Thierry Henry was a 20-year-old prospect from AS Monaco who had shown enough good form to be included in the initial 28-man party. He survived the cut down to 22 players and went on to score for France at their own tournament, despite having just three caps to his name before it started. He would move to Juventus the following year before excelling at Arsenal just eight months after transferring to Italy.
David Trezeguet was also playing for Les Monegasques alongside Henry at that point, he went on to make the same journey to Turin albeit a little later than Henry.
A then 20-year-old Trezeguet also made it into the tournament’s final squad with one more cap than Henry and scored his solitary goal of the campaign in a 4-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the group stages. The striker would go on to play more than 70 times for Les Bleus and become a legend for Juventus.
The likes of those players had an impact in the 1998 World Cup, but they were the undoubted stars of Euro 2000 two years later. Those same players plus some of the talented seniors such as Lilian Thuram, Bixente Lizarazu and Emmanuel Petit, not to mention influential elder statesmen such as Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc, secured France’s second European championship.
Those back-to-back victories heightened the French public and media’s expectations beyond all reason.
With such talent in the side, the national team was all of a sudden expected to sweep all before them. Zidane, Vieira, Henry, Trezeguet and Claude Makelele were in their prime, not to mention the strong additions of the likes of Willy Sagnol to the squad.
It was that expectation of success following those victories that arguably crushed the team before they began their 2002 World Cup campaign in Japan and South Korea, two years after the success of Belgium and the Netherlands.
Unlike many other nations that would have been able to call on the unwavering support of their population back during a tournament of that size, France is not a naturally football-orientated country. A poor result for Les Bleus against Senegal, their opening game in the 2002 event, would hit their support hard.
That is exactly what happened.
France had arguably failed to ever truly get “into” football, despite the massive successes that their country was enjoying between 1998 and 2000. Even now, outside of the likes of Marseille, Lens, Saint-Etienne, Paris and Bordeaux, a football-dictated culture is almost impossible to find.
The public were essentially interested in the team when they were doing well. But they had less desire to continue following their progress after one or two poor results given the limited hardcore football fan base within the country.
However, the French media also had less patience with the team after their previous successes, so there was no margin for error. The pressure on the team was immense, particularly with Zidane missing for the two opening matches through injury. Preparations had hardly gone smoothly.
A 1-0 opening defeat to Senegal had a massively negative effect and instead of reacting, the team regressed under high pressure and exited without even scoring a goal.
In most other football nations, the success of the past two tournaments would have inspired absolute devotion and support from the nations supporters. For France though, it provoked apathy because of an overamplified sense of entitlement that resulted in immediate and harsh criticism of the side from all quarters following any adverse result.
Going into the 2002 World Cup, the pressure was so immense on the French side led by Roger Lemerre that their exit stunned the country as well as the world audience.
Once the support cast of that golden generation, and the star players themselves, had started to get complacent, then the team went into a rapid decline. Players like Henry and Vieira were questioning their own ability and desire to wear the national team’s colours, Zidane’s importance to the side was also massively emphasised.
That talent once again reemerged when Zidane inspired Les Bleus to the latter stages of Euro 2004 in Portugal, only to suffer another surprise defeat, this time to eventual champions Greece. He also led France to the cusp of Le Mondial once again 2006, but Raymond Domenech’s side were eventually defeated by Italy as Zidane exited the football world shrouded in controversy.
Overexpectation created by the 1998 World Cup victory and the Euro 2000 success that followed has arguably killed French international football to a degree ever since. Every group of players following that special generation are compared to the heroes of those two victories and are inevitably crushed by that great public expectation.
The 1998 legacy is still evident today; the search for the “new Zidane” has become a source of media fanaticism. It has also crippled a number of recent creative talents, not least Lyon’s Yoann Gourcuff who was arguably the closest France have come to replacing ‘Zizou.’ Karim Benzema is also having difficulty in filling the boots of the likes of Henry and Trezeguet and 1998's triumphant Deschamps is now coach.
Winning the World Cup on home soil did so many good things for French football, not least exposing a vastly talented generation of players to France and the world, as well as altering the direction French football forever. But that success also created great expectations that the generations since 1998 and 2000 have been unable to live up to.
The stick of comparison with those golden years has beaten every group of players since that initial triumph 15 years ago. Between 2010 and now, France has occupied their two lowest positions in the FIFA/Coca-Cola world rankings.
All French teams of the last decade have fallen down collectively, despite boasting some very talented individuals. Les Bleus have paid for the benchmark that they set for themselves with an exceptional group of players in 1998-2000, something that may well never be replicated in French footballing history.