Ranking France's 20 Greatest World Cup Moments
There are many ways to pick out great World Cup moments. Some are filled with agony and despair, some are memorable for the wrong reasons, but many are remembered for all the right reasons.
When picking out some memorable moments in France’s World Cup history, it is hard to forget the bad times that gained a number of headlines: the strike of South Africa 2010, the poor performances of 2002 and the failure to qualify in 1994.
However, when remembering France’s greatest moments, we have to remember the good times: the moments that bring smiles to the French fans, the moments that will make any highlight reel and the magical moments that the fans still talk about in bars.
That’s what we have done here. Let’s forget the bad times and remember all of the good moments that France have enjoyed throughout the decades.
That’s the criteria for making this list. All of these moments have made a positive impact on France’s football history.
20. France First to Get Their Hands on the Original Trophy
The first tournament may have been held in South America with Uruguay winning the first ever bid in 1930, but the first man to get his hands on the World Cup trophy was a Frenchman. Abel Lafleur was the French sculpter commissioned to create the trophy for the first World Cup tournament.
Although born in South West France, Lafleur was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The figure on the trophy was inspired by Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory. With Lafleur known for specialising in the naked female form, the end result was a wonderfully beautiful statue.
The trophy would set sail to Uruguay from the south coast of France aboard the SS Conte Verde, along with the competing European players and FIFA president Jules Rimet.
Rimet, the longest serving FIFA president to date, would carry the trophy in his bag. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to bring it back with the French side. However, for his part in creating the now legendary competition, the trophy was named after Rimet in 1946 and continued to be the prize awarded to the winning team until Brazil won it for the third time in 1970.
No matter what historic moments happen in the World Cup, France will always have its place in the tournament’s conception, and the images of the first nine winners will always feature French invention.
19. France Play and Win the First Ever Game in World Cup History
Right back in 1930, no one quite knew what to expect when 13 teams, with just four from Europe, travelled to Uruguay to take part in the inaugural World Cup.
Up until the 2006 World Cup, tradition dictated that the reigning holders played in the opening game of the tournament. When it was decided that the previous winners would not gain automatic qualification for the next tournament, it became the home nation that would get things underway. However, in 1930 when there was no set precedent, France took on Mexico in the first ever World Cup fixture.
History will forever show that it was Les Bleus that won the inaugural game, beating the Mexicans 4-1 in Montevideo. Technically, United States vs. Belgium had kicked off at the same time, but the France game was part of Group A, so still appears as the first game listed.
Just 19 minutes into the opening game, French forward Lucien Laurent became the first ever player to score at the World Cup. No one back then knew just how momentous the tournament would become. Speaking to FIFA.com, Laurent described that historic moment.
“One of my team mates centred the ball and I followed its path carefully, taking it on the volley with my right foot. Everyone was pleased but we didn't all roll around on the ground—nobody realised that history was being made. A quick handshake and we got on with the game. And no bonus either; we were all amateurs in those days, right to the end."
Those eleven French players from that day would go down in history and should never be forgotten.
18. Patrick Vieira Scores Vital Goal Against Togo
France’s hangover from both the 2002 World Cup and the European Championships in 2004 looked to be extending itself into the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Going into the final group game against Togo, France had drawn their first two matches and were on the brink of elimination.
In a frustrating first half, the French side kept attacking but couldn’t find a way past Kossi Agassa in the Togolese net. David Trezeguet, Thierry Henry and Franck Ribery all had excellent chances, but the game remained goalless.
A victory for Togo would have eliminated France from the tournament, and a third consecutive draw wouldn’t have been enough to secure their passage to the last 16 if the result in the Switzerland vs. South Korea match up had gone against them.
With 55 minutes on the clock, Franck Ribery danced into the box and then squared the ball towards the penalty spot. Patrick Vieira was well positioned and launched a right-foot shot into the far corner. No smile or celebration from Vieira—this was business. France would score a second and finish 2-0 winners, but without Vieira’s goal France could have faced another early exit and they wouldn’t have gone all the way to the World Cup final.
17. Michel Platini Scores in 2-0 Win over Italy
France were unbeaten going into the knock-out stages of the 1986 World Cup. However, after finishing second in the group behind the Soviet Union, they were pitted against the reigning champions, Italy. It meant the match played in Mexico City would see the world champions take on the reigning European champions. Easily a game fit for the World Cup final, but this was for a place in the quarter-finals.
Playing in white, France would win the game 2-0 with a goal in each half. The best moment of the match came in the 15th minute when Les Bleus took the lead. Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Jean Fernandez brought the ball forward and gave it to club team-mate Dominique Rocheteau on the edge of the box. The 31-year-old turned wonderfully to his right before slipping a sublime pass to European Footballer of the Year Michel Platini. The Juventus man took a touch before chipping the ball over the out rushing Giovanni Galli.
It was a perfect team move, with two superb pieces of individual skill from Rocheteau and Platini. The finish from France’s talisman was that of a wonderfully talented player, and there is nothing better than seeing one of the best footballer’s in the world scoring a great goal on the world’s stage.
16. Bernard Lacombe Scores After 37 Seconds
The opening game of France’s 1978 World Cup campaign saw them take on Italy in Mar del Plata in Group 1. France hadn’t recorded a victory against the Azzuri since 1920, so Les Bleus were hoping they could get their campaign off to a positive start and get one over on their great rivals.
In all of their wildest dreams, they could not have hoped for a better start to the game. After just 37 seconds they were 1-0 up. The Italian defence were not ready for the lightning pace of Didier Six down the left wing, and the Lens midfielder burst past his man and played a wonderful left-footed cross towards the penalty spot which Bernard Lacombe turned in past the shocked Dino Zoff.
It was a wonderful move and a wonderful moment for France. Unfortunately, they would go on to lose the game 2-1.
15. France's Young Guns Stay Calm in Shootout Victory
Hosting the World Cup in 1998 was a great honour for France. The team had failed to qualify four years earlier and changes to the organisation had been made. There was no doubt they had a better team, but no one quite knew how good this collection of players would be.
Two young players in the squad were Monaco forwards Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, who were both just 20 years old going into the tournament. The plan was for them to gain experience and usher through the next chapter in French football.
Henry had impressed during the group stage, scoring against South Africa and Saudi Arabia. He would finally finish as France’s top scorer with three goals, but one of his biggest and most important strikes would not count to his total.
The quarter-final against Italy ended 0-0 after 120 minutes, meaning penalties were needed to decide the winner. With experienced players like Didier Deschamps and Lillian Thuram failing to step up, the responsibility was left to substitutes Henry and Trezeguet. Both dispatched their penalties with a calmness and maturity beyond their years, helping France into the semi-finals.
Perhaps the signs of how good both players would become were there when they helped France knock Italy out of the World Cup 5-4 in the shoot-out.
14. Christophe Dugarry Gets France off to a Flying Start
France as a footballing nation are perennially poor starters in international tournaments. In recent memory, there is the loss to Senegal in 2002 and the goalless draw with Switzerland in 2006. Between 1966 and 1998, France had only won once in any of their opening games—a tight 1-0 victory over unfancied Canada in 1986. The home nation needed a good start to events in 1998.
55,000 fans descended on the Stade Velodrome on 12 June to watch Les Bleus launch their home World Cup against a tricky South African side. Feeling anticipation, anxiety and excitement, both the fans and the players didn’t quite know what to expect before that opening game. The result would go on to set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
After 36 minutes, Christophe Dugarry got the party started. Zinedine Zidane curled in a corner with his right-foot, Dugarry shook off his marker and glanced the header past Hans Vonk.
Dugarry's goal kicked off the celebrations that would continue for the next four weeks.
13. France Inspired to Victory over Superb Spanish Side
After struggling to qualify from the group stage, France’s opponents in the knock-out stage were the much-fancied Spanish side. They were still unbeaten in the tournament and had only conceded one goal in their three group games. No one could have predicted what would happen next.
As expected, Spain took the lead, with David Villa dispatching a penalty after Lillian Thuram had been judged to have fouled Pablo Ibanez in the box. The goal seemed to light a fire inside France and, in particular, Zinedine Zidane. The Real Madrid man began to pull the strings and increasingly looked like the player of old. The 33-year-old would turn back the clock and inspire France to victory.
Franck Ribery levelled the scores before half-time. Latching on to a lovely pass by Patrick Vieira, the winger rounded Iker Casillas before squeezing the ball over the line.
As the game edged toward the 90th minute with the scores level, Zidane made sure the game wouldn’t reach extra time. His 83rd minute free-kick swung into the box, and Vieira was there to head it in at the back post. Then, in injury time, he would wrap the game up with a lovely run and finish—cutting inside the box onto his right-foot before smashing the ball past Casillas. It was a wonderful moment to cap off a brilliant French performance. Zidane had been reborn and France had finally woken from their World Cup slumber.
12. Emmanuel Petit Puts the Icing on Final Victory
Emmanuel Petit’s goal against France in the final of the 1998 World Cup is never as fondly remembered as the Zinedine Zidane double preceding it in the first half, but its place in French football history should not be forgotten.
Zidane’s second goal had knocked Brazil into a tailspin; at no point in the second half did they show that they had answer to Zidane’s headers, but just one goal from the Brazilians would have led to a nervy finale.
Then, with just seconds remaining, France put the cherry on the cake. Denilson’s poor corner was picked up by Christophe Dugarry, who advanced up the pitch—unsure whether or not to attack. The blonde locks of Emmanuel Petit came flying past the forward, who played the ball to Patrick Vieira who in turn slipped in Petit, who secured France's first World Cup victory.
The celebrations began around the stands and every French person watching around the world knew there was nothing Brazil could do to stop them.
11. Zinedine Zidane Turns Back the Clock Against Brazil
Zinedine Zidane’s career was all but over in 2006. Included in Raymond Domenech’s squad for the Germany World Cup as a substitute, the Real Madrid midfielder was due to hang up his boots after the tournament. It was meant to be nothing more than a farewell tour.
As always, Zidane didn’t quite see things the same as everyone else.
After struggling through the group stage, Zidane showed life against Spain. He looked more in rhythm, pulling and pushing the French play—a sign that the old Zidane was making a comeback. He hit his peak one last time against Brazil.
For 90 minutes of pure footballing joy, the midfielder turned back the clock and there was nothing that Carlos Alberto Parreira's side could do but watch on in despair. Eight years earlier, Zidane had scored the winning goals against Brazil at the Stade de France, once again he would be the difference against the South Americans.
Dancing, jinking and weaving past his opponents, Zidane ignored the samba beat and was playing the role of conductor on that summer’s day in Frankfurt.
Just before the hour mark, Zidane would leave his permanent mark on the game. His deliciously dangerous free-kick found Thierry Henry on the edge of the six-yard box, and the striker applied the volleyed finish.
Zidane wasn’t quite at the same level against Portugal in the semi-final or Italy in the final, but the whole of France will never forget that day in Frankfurt when their greatest ever player turned back the clock just one last time.
10. Just Fontaine Scores Hat-Trick Against Paraguay
Back in 1958 few people outside of France were aware of the name Just Fontaine, but after the World Cup in Sweden, his name would be forever linked with World Cup glory.
Going into the tournament, Fontaine was not one of France’s stars. Their main hope was that of Real Madrid midfielder Raymond Kopa, but it was his partnership with Fontaine that set the tournament alight. Fontaine had only played five times in five years for France and scored just one goal. But it was his record of 34 goals in 26 league games that secured his selection for the tournament.
In the opening game against Paraguay a fantastic hat-trick from Fontaine sparked not only France’s run to the semi-finals but a record 13 goals in a single tournament—a record that still stands to this day.
France were 1-0 down when Fontaine equalised on the 24th minute. His second on the half hour put France 2-1 up. Paraguay would come back and take a 3-2 lead, but France proved too strong over the full match. Fontaine completed his hat-trick on the 67th minute to make the score 5-3 to France. They would go on to win 7-3 and Fontaine would go on to score 10 more during the tournament.
Without the opening game hat-trick and the superb stream of passes from Raymond Kopa, Fontaine would not have been able to set his unbeaten record, and France wouldn’t have one of their most memorable moments.
9. Michel Platini Inspires Comeback Against Brazil
After qualifying for the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup, France had to take on Brazil for a place in the final four. This was a Brazilian side with names such as Socartes, Careca, Zico and Falcao, and is deemed one of the greatest teams to have never lifted the World Cup.
Brazil took the lead after 17 minutes when they combined for a wonderful team move that ripped through the heart of the French defence, Careca providing the finish from the edge of the box. France could have crumbled in the Mexican heat, but with the play of European Footballer of the Year, Michel Platini, they came back and ended up winning the game on penalties.
Dominique Rocheteau pushed down the right and played in a tantalising back post cross, which dropped to Platini at the back post, who had no problem finding the back of the net.
It’s not the goal itself that is the greatest moment: it’s what it meant for France and for the tournament.
8. Luis Fernandez Scores Winning Penalty in 1986
One of the greatest French sides of all time features for the third time on this list, and the moment comes in the aforementioned penalty shootout win against Brazil in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup. The game had finished 1-1 after extra time and spot kicks would decide who would make the semi-final.
Brazilian legend Socrates would miss the first penalty, Joel Bats going the right way to get his hands on the midfielder’s penalty. That would give France an early advantage and the next six penalties would find the back of the net. Michel Platini would surprisingly miss his and France’s fourth penalty, leaving the scores 3-3 and giving Brazil a chance to take the lead. Julio Cesar smashed his penalty to the right of Bats, but it would come crashing off the post, leaving the score at 3-3 and France with one kick to win the game.
Jean Fernandez placed the ball on the spot, took a breath and then placed the ball low to his left. Carlos went to his left and Fernandez wheeled off in celebration. It was a great moment for the team and the player and France had knocked out one of the pre-tournament favourites.
7. Marius Tresor's Superb Volley Againt West Germany
There are so many memorable moments from this remarkable game that it could have a top 20 countdown all of its own. The 1982 semi-final match up finished 1-1 after 90 minutes, and both France and West Germany continued to attack during extra time.
It was the French side that struck first in the extra period, going 2-1 up with one of the best extra-time goals you're ever likely to see. Michel Platini had been fouled out on the right-wing, and Alain Giresse stood over the free-kick. Giresse clipped the free-kick, Marius Tresor had got himself free around the penalty spot and with grace and perfect technique launched himself up in to the air and perfectly volleyed the ball past Harald Schumacher.
The 32-year-old Girondins de Bordeaux midfielder had only scored two goals for his club in the season leading up to the World Cup, but delivered a volley and finish that Platini himself would have been proud of, and one that is worthy of a place high up in this countdown.
6. Laurent Blanc Scores Golden Goal Winner
At France '98 the “golden goal”—meaning the first team to score within extra time won the game, with no chance to make a comeback—made its World Cup debut.
France vs. Paraguay was a tight and tense affair, and after 90 minutes there was nothing between the two sides. The game would go to extra time and the golden goal rule would be in play at a World Cup tournament for the first time.
With only seven minutes to go until penalties, the play had become very cagey and cautious from both sides. Neither wanting to commit too many men forward, knowing they could get caught out at the back and their tournament would be over.
France tried a few times to launch the ball into the Paraguay area, but each time the ball was cleared to relevant safety. Then, Robert Pires took control, dinking a lovely pass towards the penalty spot, the cushioned header from David Trezeguet was to the feet of Laurent Blanc was perfect, and the defender smashed it beyond Jose Luis Chilavert
France were through, the celebrations were full of joy and relief and Blanc had scored the first-ever World Cup golden goal.
5. Lillian Thuram the Hero Against Croatia
Tensions were high at the Stade de France on 8 July 1998. France had just kicked off the second half of their semi-final against Croatia. They had gone into the break at 0-0 and the fans had been hoping that the great run of the Croats would have been derailed by now. The script wasn’t written for Croatian to advance, this was France’s World Cup: it was destiny.
Then Davor Suker put the Croatians 1-0 up seconds after the restart. Was this the end of the dream?
Not on Lillian Thuram’s watch. The calm, mild-mannered right-back was not about to see his side go down without a fight, and this was his moment to become a national hero.
Thuram had never scored for France before the game against Croatia, and he would never score for the team again, but that night he scored two fantastic goals—two goals that sent France to the World Cup final. Without Thuram there are no Zidane headers, there is no Petit goal and there is no trophy for Deschamps.
It is a moment that isn’t as widely remembered as it wasn’t in the final, but it’s hard to forget the one-man mission of Lillian Thuram to make sure his country had a chance of winning their first ever World Cup.
4. Fantastic Goal by Alain Giresse Against the West Germans
There are so many moments from this game that will forever be remembered by the French public. Perhaps not a great moment, but the game will be mostly remembered for Harald Schumacher’s disgraceful challenge on Patrick Battiston, which left the Frenchman motionless on the ground. Schumacher didn’t even receive a yellow card; to some he should have been sent off. The German goalkeeper would go on to save two of France’s penalties in the 5-4 shootout victory.
France’s great moment of this legendary game came in the 98th minute when they were already 2-1 up in extra-time. France, inspired by the injustice of the Schumacher incident, continued to push forward. Platini received the ball on the edge of the box, he held on to the ball with four German defenders in front of him waiting for an opening. He gave the ball to Didier Six on the left and moved into the box, occupied with marking Platini the defenders didn’t notice Alain Giresse ghosting toward the penalty box, Six nudged the ball in his direction and little midfielder smashed the ball past Schumacher.
Everyone knows the famous Tardelli celebration for Italy, Giresse and the France players celebrated in a similar fashion.
France were 3-1 up in extra time and looked to be heading to the World Cup Final. Unfortunately, the elation turned to despair as West Germany came back strong, levelled the game and won on penalties.
For the 1982 World Cup, despite the final result, there is no better moment for France than the moment Giresse fired his shot past Schumacher.
3. The Genius of Zinedine Zidane's Panenka Against Italy
There are moments in football that perfectly sum up a player to perfection. In the 2006 World Cup final we were reminded just how much of a genius Zinedine Zidane really was. They say that there is a thin line between genius and madness, and it’s a line that “Zizou” regularly flirted with—no more so than when France were awarded a penalty in the 2006 World Cup final.
Just seven minutes into the game, Marco Materazzi was adjudged to have fouled Florent Malouda and it was Zidane who stepped up to take the resulting spot-kick.
This was to be his last ever professional match—and it would later be remembered for all the wrong reasons—but this moment should not be so easily forgotten.
After scoring twice in the 1998 final, Zidane had the chance to become one of a select few players to score in multiple finals, but to do so he would have to beat former Juventus team-mate Gianluigi Buffon in the Italian net. In a battle of wits, Zidane would play a masterstroke.
He wouldn’t go left or right, nor would he wait for Buffon to make a decision, this was a man whose football brain was ahead of anyone else on the pitch. Casually he approached the ball, and with all the guile and bravery in the world Zidane chipped the ball down the middle, it glanced the underside of the bar and crossed the line.
One of the greatest players of all time performed and executed a “panenka” in the World Cup final against probably the greatest goalkeeper of that era. Crazy or genius? Only Zidane knows the answer.
2. Zidane Scoring Two in the World Cup Final
We’ve all had that dream haven’t we? It’s the World Cup final in your national stadium. You are all lined up with your team-mates, proudly signing the national anthem along with a stadium full of your country’s fans. It’s your dream, so it’s you that makes the difference, scoring the winning goal as your country lifts the World Cup.
In 1998, Zinedine Zidane turned that dream into a reality. In front of a packed, expectant, partisan crowd in the Stade de France, the then-Juventus midfielder scored not one, but two fabulous headers as France took a 2-0 half-time lead over Brazil in the World Cup final.
France had flirted with elimination the whole tournament, but against Brazil they took inspiration from the goals of their talismanic playmaker and were too much for their South American opponents.
The first came just before the half hour, the corner was swung in from the right and Zidane beat Leonardo in the air to power the textbook header past Taffarel’s near post.
If the first knocked the wind out of Brazil, the second was the killer blow. Seconds into first-half injury time, Youri Djorkaeff whipped in the right-footed corner, Brazilian captain Dunga stumbled and Zidane planted a firm header low and past the helpless Taffarel.
Dream became reality for Zidane, scoring a double as your country lifts the World Cup on home soil. For any individual player, it doesn’t get much better than that.
1. France Lift the 1998 World Cup
Whenever you think of the World Cup you think about iconic images: Maradona lifting the trophy in Mexico, Geoff Hurst and England in 1966 and Brazil and Pele back in 1970, to name but three. The winning captain being handed the FIFA World Cup trophy and the few seconds before the captain lifts the trophy above his head are the images that will be played and shown around the world for the next few days, and then for years to come.
In 1998, it was Didier Deschamps that would forever be immortalised in football history. Climbing the steps of the Stade de France and being handed the World Cup trophy, lifting it beside his team-mates and friends for the whole nation of France.
Moments and memories are usually narrowed down to single players, single goals or incidents, but in 1998 the greatest moment for France was the collection of players standing together in the Stade de France and celebrating becoming World Champions. Four years previously they were all sat watching the tournament at home, now they had conquered all.
Football is a team sport and it is fitting that France’s greatest moment in World Cup history is the moment that all 23 men, for just a few moments, were together as one.