1958: Fontaine and the baker’s dozen

So rare is football footage from the 1950s that Just Fontaine is seen as little more than the answer to a trivia question that gets asked every world cup year. But he and his French teammates were so much more than that. For those who followed the World Cup in Sweden, which ended with a 17-year-old Pelé grabbing the headlines, France’s performances were no surprise. The bulk of the team, including Fontaine, was drawn from a legendary Stade de Reims side that had dominated French football that decade. They even led Real Madrid 2-0 in the inaugural European Cup final (1956) before losing 4-3.

Born in Marrakech, Fontaine made his initial strides in the game in Casablanca, before becoming one of Europe’s most coveted strikers at Nice. By the time he travelled to Sweden, he was in his prime, and Paraguay felt the full force of his acceleration and finishing ability in a 7-3 rout that saw him contribute a hat-trick. He then scored at the beginning and end of a 3-2 loss to Yugoslavia, before netting the winner against Scotland.

Northern Ireland were routed 4-0, with Fontaine scoring two more, and his link-up play with Raymond Kopa, the dazzling playmaker who would return to Reims in 1959 after three European Cup wins with Real, was especially noteworthy. France were no match for a fabulous Brazilian side in the semi-final, but it raised few eyebrows that the first goal the Seleção conceded in the tournament was against the pacy and powerful Fontaine.

In the third-place play-off, he ran West Germany ragged, scoring four in a 6-3 triumph. Whether it was a goalmouth scramble, or running on to precise through-balls, the defenders had no answer. And in the process, Sándor Kocsis’ tally of 11 (most goals in a world cup), set four years earlier, was shattered. Chances are that the Fontaine standard will never be reached.

1986: A tale of missed penalties

This is a match that features in pretty much every debate about the greatest world cup game ever played. France had been majestic on their way to glory at Euro 1984, while Telê Santana’s 1982 side—upset 3-2 by Italy with a semi-final spot on the line—were the poster boys for beautiful football. By 1986, both teams were in decline—reflexes a touch slower, movements more sluggish and finishing not quite as sharp.

Despite that, they offered us a quarter-final that will not be forgotten. Careca gave Brazil an early lead, but Michel Platini, scorer of nine goals in that magnificent European campaign, arrived unmarked at the far post to poach an equalizer. Zico, one of the talismans of the 1982 team, started on the bench, but soon after he came on in the 71st minute, Brazil won a penalty.

Sócrates, perhaps the coolest footballer of all time, had despatched a spot kick with panache in the previous game, but Zico, Brazilian football’s biggest name since Pelé, quickly usurped penalty-taking duties after Edinho, the captain, had placed the ball on the spot.

Zico’s effort was well saved by Joël Bats, and after Sócrates had spurned an open goal from Careca’s cross and Carlos, the Brazilian goalkeeper, had escaped with no sanction for a cynical foul just outside the area, the game went to penalties under the harsh Guadalajara sun.

Sócrates, as insouciant as ever in his run-up, saw his effort saved, and after the next six kicks went in, Brazil were given hope when Platini ballooned his spot kick way over the bar. Júlio César’s venomous kick was far too quick for Bats, but, when it crashed into the post and bounced clear, France had their opening. Luis Fernández, one of the four midfield musketeers, made no mistake.

“One of my biggest regrets is not winning a trophy for Tele," Zico would say after Santana’s death two decades later. “If anybody deserved one, it was him."

1998: Zidane at the double

The two finalists in 1998 took vastly different routes to the summit. France stormed through the league phase, scoring nine and conceding just once, before finding the net just thrice in three knockout games. Brazil, who lost to Norway in the group stage, saved their best for the big games, thrashing Chile 4-1 and beating Denmark 3-2 before getting past the Netherlands on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian original, had been to the fore in those games, and his sudden illness on the afternoon of the final threw Brazil’s preparations into disarray. To this day, no one knows what really happened, but Júnior Baiano and others have spoken movingly of Edmundo’s screams and rushing down to Ronaldo’s room to find him having convulsions.

At that stage, it seemed certain that the young man widely regarded as the world’s best would play no part in the final. The French certainly thought so when they saw the first team-sheet. But a second one had the No.9 pencilled in, and sure enough he was out there as the teams lined up for the anthems.

His teammates, however, struggled for focus, and France were comfortably the better side in the opening exchanges, though Fabian Barthez could easily have fumbled a Ronaldo cross into his own net. But Ronaldo was as culpable as anyone for France’s opener, dawdling just outside the six-yard box as Zinedine Zidane—sent off earlier in the competition for a petulant stamp on a Saudi opponent—thumped in a header off Emmanuel Petit’s corner.

On the stroke of half-time, he did it again, timing his run perfectly to angle another header past Cláudio Taffarel. Ronaldo’s surging runs and dribbles mostly came to nothing, with Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly imperious at the heart of the French defence. Even when Desailly was sent off with just over 20 minutes to go, it was France that finished stronger.

Not long after Denílson, on as a second-half substitute, had struck the bar, France went up the other end and Petit finished off a classic counter-attack. Brazil and Ronaldo would have to wait four more years for that fifth title.

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