This was the first full season for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. It was also the first time that he guided the club to Premier League and FA Cup triumph. Two other members of that squad would go on to lift the famous Jules Rimet trophy. Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, who formed such a formidable partnership in the center of midfield for Arsenal, went on to become world champions with France. Both of them combined in the final against Brazil to score the third goal, which was the icing on the cake after a Zinedine Zidane double had already sent most of the crowd in Stade de France into raptures.
This tournament was full of goals from the start to the finish. 4 matches is still vividly remembered. The first was the second round game between England and Argentina. This was of course when Michael Owen practically ran through the entire opposition to score a beautiful solo goal. However, it was not the best goal of the game for me. That honour goes to Javier Zanetti. A freekick was given at the stroke of half time and the execution was perfect. A dummy and a short pass to an unmarked Zanetti inside of England’s penalty box, was finished superbly into David Seaman’s top right hand corner. Zanetti was hiding behind the England wall before the ball was played to him and seemed to emerge from nowhere. This match would also see the fracas between David Beckham and Diego Simeone, in which the former was to be sent off for. Eventually Argentina went through on penalties and was slated to play Holland next.
That was another beautiful game epitomize by the brilliance of one Dennis Bergkamp. I don’t think there is anyone who can question the authenticity of Bergkamp’s winner for Holland against Argentina in the quarterfinals. The long ball from left to right was floated from the back by Frank De Boer. The pass was inch perfect, the instant control to take control of the ball was immaculate. Sensing Roberto Ayala closing in, another quick touch of the ball took Bergkamp inside of the defender. The only thing left was to finish and that the Dutchman died. Cue wild celebrations from the Dutch fans including me.
Not many would have remembered this but when Patrick Kluivert opened the scoring in the first half, he had Bergkamp to thank for. This time the other De Boer, Ronald chipped the ball towards Bergkamp inside of Argentina’s box and without taking any additional touch, Bergkamp cushioned a header into the path of Kluivert to slam home without breaking a stride. Magical, magical stuff from a player at the peak of his powers.
The victor of this game though would fall victim to Brazil in the semifinals. Another classic, another match settled by spotkicks. Ronaldo, who was a regular in this WC, was the real star of this game. He was a constant menace to the Dutch defence and had real pace to burn against both Jaap Stam and F De Boer. Receiving a delightful through pass from Rivaldo, the Brazil no.9 evaded Phillip Cocu’s challenge to slot the ball home past Edwin Van De Sar. Thought the Dutch were not to be outdone so easily. The European side took control of the second half but found Claudio Taffarel’s goal hard to break. But flaws were already detected in the Brazilian defence.
Inspite of their height, Aldair and Junior Baiano were both struggling against crosses pumped into Brazil’s box the entire game. Even Kluivert was the only target up front, both central defenders still found it hard to cope. When Cocu won the ball in midfield and spread the ball out wide to R De Boer, the Brazilians panicked once again. This time the cross found Kluivert, who got ahead of a static Baiano and duly headed the ball past Taffarel. In the end, once again the Dutch were to be undone by means of penalty lottery.
In a way these were the games that I can still remember quite clearly and the irony is that the winner of each game, gone on to lose the next. Even France lost the subsequent World Cup game in South Korea/Japan against Senegal. And they say things in the world works in mysterious ways.