Cris Freddi looks back at France 98 and experiences a definite touch of déjà vu

I thought it was just me at first, but it’s all right: everyone else is still waiting for the tournament to take off too. Actually it looked as if it had, and at the stage it was supposed to, the last round of group matches. Morocco-Scotland and Norway-Brazil, Paraguay-Nigeria and Spain-Bulgaria, Mexico-Holland and Belgium-South Korea. But even then we got Yugoslavia v USA, Germany v Iran and Jamaica v Japan – and although we had some memorable matches at the knockout stage (Brazil v Denmark, Argentina v England and Holland) there were still too many dull teams left: Germany, Romania, Norway, France up to a point, Yugoslavia, Croatia.

So although there’s been no shortage of incident, the whole thing’s had a bit of a samey feel to it. Wing backs all round, a defensive midfielder just in front of the back line (Dunga, Helveg, Gica Popescu), very little dribbling. Even the ‘minor’ teams have played in much the same way, except that they’ve lacked a goalscorer.

Crudely put, this World Cup hasn’t been very different from the last three or four. Many of the old faces are still there, on and off the pitch, the format and presentation styles are all too familiar, you don’t even bother hating the Mexican Wave any more.

There’s been plenty of colour, much of it painted on people’s faces, and you’d have to be a real killjoy to want to get rid of it – but that’s just another sign that things haven’t changed: it looks like the World Cup finals are always going to be more of a money making pageant than a genuine attempt to produceuniversally  accepted world champions.

As in 1994, the semi-finals were won by the teams with an extra day’s rest, and the tournament gained nothing from the increased number of teams, especially those from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF. Robbie Earle’s goal led to probably the best half-time in any World Cup, but Cesare Maldini was right about Jamaica all along. Same goes for Tunisia and South Africa, and some of the matches were like a tournament within a tournament: Jamaica v Japan, Iran v USA, South Africa v Saudi Arabia. We’ve had enough of seeing South Korea run very fast and Cameroon collect red cards, and some of the successes of 1994 took steps backwards: Nigeria, Romania, Bulgaria, the Saudis.

The commentators and summarizers were in every sense the same as ever. David Pleat and Big Ron told you things you didn’t know, but Keegan was unspeakable. Forget the hopeless predictions (Romania-England, Batty’s penalty), they can happen to anyone: it’s the feeble jokes we hoped we’d heard the last of in USA 94, plus the stating of the bleedin’ obvious and the kneejerk criticism of referees. People don’t try and hide their contempt for Jimmy Hill any more; and even Saint Des appeared to be going through the motions a bit. Meanwhile Bobby Robson, Chris Waddle and others took taxpayers’ money without doing their homework (“Dezilay”, “Ben Salami”, “Mogadon” etc).

On the pitch too we’ve seen a lot of it before. Germany were still picking several of their 1990 players, presumably because there really is a shortage of fresh talent and not because Berti Vogts doesn’t recognize it. Bulgaria suffered the same dearth and same fate. Italy still hadn’t found a playmaker and went out on penalties again. As usual England were able to quote bad luck when trying to mask shortcomings (and went out on penalties again). Nobody noticed the USA.

Above all, as in 1994 Brazil showed flashes of real talent but did only just enough in every match, until the final. They were only prevented from winning the whole thing by a similar French side.

There were one or two pleasant surprises (Morocco, Mahdavikia, Denmark in their last two matches) plus the usual quota of marvellous goals (Hadji, Njanka, Berg-kamp, Owen, Zanetti). Tore André Flo gave an exemplary, gut-busting performance against Brazil; Paolo Maldini was still the best left back, ahead of the excellent Lizarazu and the appalling Roberto Carlos; and Kluivert made his comeback from a sea of troubles.

But it was all a bit like buying the latest Rolling Stones album. They mattered in the past but now you listen to it once then shelve it. Enough to make you buy the next one, but you don’t mind waiting four years. And it’s because it’s the same manufactured product being churned out, not just that you’re a jaded old fart.

Mind you, they’re still brilliant live. Maybe the secret next time is to save up for Seoul and Tokyo instead of watching every single minute at home, even if it means missing out on the joys of Chris Waddle struggling with Aristizábal.

From WSC 138 August 1998. What was happening this month

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