23 years ago today, Le Tournoi de France kicked off. A one-off, warm up invitational staged in preparation for the 1998 World Cup, it has gain a cult status in popular memory for several reasons.
First and foremost, there’s a clear rose-tinted nostalgia factor. Wavy shirts, crazy barnets and the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and to a lesser extent Phil Neville, ruling the roost – this was football back when it was fun.
Second, the tournament witnessed an iconic goal which would be unsuccessfully replicated by millions of kids – and adults to be fair, I gave it a go with a toilet roll during the start of lockdown – across the world for years to come.
Third and most unbelievably, England actually won the thing. Mad.
Before we take a trip down memory lane, let’s just remind you what Le Tournoi de France actually was.
Four teams – France, England, Brazil and France – playing each other once, the winner is the team with the most points at the end. Simple enough.
Right, let’s get into it.
The tournament’s curtain raiser took place at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon. It wasn’t the most glamorous or spacious of venues, meaning a mere 28,193 attendees witnessed the greatest free kick in footballing history in the flesh.
With 21 minutes on the clock, France’s Patrick Vieira was penalised for a cynical foul on the irrepressible Ronaldo.
Left-back Roberto Carlos placed the ball down 30 yards from goal before taking an almost comically long run up. After what seemed like an age, he finally reached his destination and made contact with the ball, sending his left-footed drive well wide of the Fabien Barthez right post.
You surely already know what happened next, but just in case any of you are lucky enough to hearing about the ‘Impossible Goal’ for the first time…the ball bent back towards the post and nestled into the back of the net in a way that seemed, well, impossible.
The hosts did managed to grab an equaliser – courtesy of late 1990s Premier League plodder Marc Keller – but this game would always be remembered as the day that Roberto Carlos defied the laws of physics.
England kicked off their Le Tournoi campaign against Italy, in what was dubbed the dress rehearsal for the two teams’ make-or-break World Cup qualifying meeting in Rome later that year.
Glenn Hoddle’s side would go on to draw 0-0 in the Eternal City and they did even better in Le Tournoi, swaggering to a 2-0 victory.
Deploying a 4-3-3 which included David Beckham and Paul Scholes – who was making his full international debut – as inside forwards, Ian Wright opened the scoring before Scholes added a second just after half time.
It was England’s first win over Italy for 20 years and Hoddle’s tactical experimentation was greeted with typically over the top enthuiasm back at home.
Buoyed by their humbling of the Italians, England went into their second game against hosts France with a spring in their step.
Hoddle reshuffled his pack for the fixture, recalling skipper Alan Shearer to the starting line up and also selecting Paul Gascoigne from the start; albeit in a more conservative role than he was used to.
It was a far tighter affair than the Italy game – with David Seaman pulling off several good saves to keep the Three Lions in it – and it took mistake from Barthez to allow Alan Shearer to finally grab the game’s first goal with four minutes left to play.
The win meant Hoddle’s side had smashed another record, becoming the first English team to defeat the French on their home soil in nearly 50 years. The hype across the English channel must have been unbearable.
Italy vs Brazil rounded off the second lot of fixtures and in what was the game of the tournament.
The Azzurri took an early lead when a mullet wielding Alessandro Del Piero nodded home Christian Vieri’s searching cross. Their advantage was doubled soon after courtesy of an Aldair own goal, before Brazil pulled one back ten minutes before half time.
The goals kept on coming after the break with Del Piero converting a penalty on the hour mark to make it 3-1 to Italy. Cesare Maldini’s side could not hold on however, with a 14 minute double salvo from electrifying pair Ronaldo and Romario securing a point for Brazil.
England being England, the good times were never going to last forever and the Three Lions remarkable run of results was put to an end by Brazil during their final game of the tournament.
Lacking the cohesion and flair present in their opening two fixtures, Hoddle’s side struggled to keep hold of the ball and their overreliance on captain and talisman Shearer – which had been a hot topic for some months – was once again sharply exposed.
Romario tormented the England defence throughout and it was no surprise when he produced a trademark, penetrative run and finish to settle the game just after the hour mark.
The result somewhat soured the victory parade which was already a pretty underwhelming affair as the trophy itself looked like an inflatable football placed on top of an unread hardback…
France and Italy played out an entertaining final game of the tournament at the Parc de Princes with a last gasp penalty earning Italy a 2-2 draw and Del Piero the Golden Boot.
Zinedine Zidane – who had a fairly quiet competition by his own ridiculously high standards – reminded the world what he was capable of by scoring a fantastic opener, before Pierluigi Casiraghi nodded in a second half equaliser.
Not to be outshone by his midfield partner, Youri Djorkaeff scored a screamer of his own to put Les Bleus back into the lead. Driving away from goal, Djorkaeff unleashed an unstoppable 25-yard drive which clipped the inside of the bar on its way into the back of the net. Lovely stuff.
If there was any justice in the world, this excellent strike would have won his side the game but Lillian Thuram’s clumsy challenge in the final moments gifted Del Piero the chance to level things up from the spot – and he made no mistake.