Twenty years ago this week, this year’s World Cup finalists France won the World Cup for the first time. Two Chelsea players were prominent in that triumph, Frank Leboeuf, who came into the side against Brazil for the suspended Laurent Blanc, and Marcel Desailly. Two more of Les Bleus, Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit, would later move to Stamford Bridge too.
The game in Paris, which ended 3-0, is probably as famous for the hour before the game as the 90 minutes of it, with drama surrounding the initial omission of Brazil’s star player Ronaldo from the teamsheet, and then his reinstatement That, and France’s game plan for the final are recalled in this interview with Leboeuf and Desailly, originally run in the Chelsea matchday programme in 1999…
You are about to play football’s biggest game in front of football’s largest audience when suddenly you are told football’s most famous player will not be lining up against you. What do you do?
Do you tear your intended tactics to pieces, make a few subtle changes or just stick to your guns and your original game plan? Was this falling star a worry anyway?
There can be few better placed that our own Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly to answer these questions - they were the men detailed to keep watch on Ronaldo in the World Cup final before the ‘is he, isn’t he?’ saga began.
‘They told us half an hour before the warm-up he wasn’t playing,’ remembers Frank, ‘then 15 minutes before they say he now plays. But what we said in the changing room, it didn’t change.
‘In the French national team we do tactics because of the way we want to play so it doesn’t matter if it is Ronaldo, Michael Owen or a striker from Senegal.
‘When you are playing Brazil and you are against Rivaldo, Bebeto and Edmundo – Ronaldo is just one more difficulty on so many difficulties to sort out. If you are strong, you do your own tactic and you don’t move from that. The opponent has to adapt. He was poor so it doesn’t mean you have to change.’
Marcel continues the story. ‘We were thinking only that they were trying to destabilise us, to worry us over whether he was playing or not. We were ready to play against him and if he didn’t, unlucky for them.
‘Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world but we kept our same four-man defence and we didn’t put any players on him.
‘For us it was more important to change our tactics for Roberto Carlos and that was why we played with three midfielders. Normally we play with two, Petit and Deschamps, but this game we played with three. We had one on Rivaldo who is really dangerous and Karembeu was going to Roberto Carlos to not give him enough time to run and cross the ball over.’
Roberto Carlos was only one of Brazil’s two famous flying full-backs, so why was he singled out for attention rather than Cafu on the other flank?
‘He was more dangerous because he was giving the ball to Ronaldo,’ explains Marcel. ‘We were sure about our defence on Ronaldo so it was better to be sure about the guy who gives the ball to him.’
Frank Leboeuf is adamant the French tactics changed little during the tournament but there was of course one major change of personnel for this game – Frank himself.
‘This didn’t change anything,’ claims Marcel. ‘I play with Frank many games before the World Cup and the only difference here was the pressure. It’s not easy if you have played one game only and maybe he had to concentrate a lot more, to relax and to play his game because he knew everybody was looking at him having taken Laurent Blanc’s position.’
With quarter of the match to go, everything was going to plan for France. Ronaldo might as well have gone home, they were 2-0 up and they were cruising. Suddenly a change was forced upon them. ‘The Rock’ had been dislodged. Marcel was sent off.
‘At that moment we said okay, we can win because Marcel is out,’ laughs Frank. ‘Emmanuel Petit went back in defence and we didn’t have any fears. Nobody could have beaten us – we were too strong at that time.’
Marcel chooses to ignore his colleague’s joke. ‘I was very upset because the second yellow card was okay but before he gave me another yellow card and I don’t know why because I didn’t make any foul. If you look at the replay I had the ball.
‘I was sure our players were going to keep the result but I was thinking if they lose the game because I have been sent off then it would be something bad, bad, bad for me.’
He need not have worried. Karembeu had previously been taken off – his job of cutting off Ronaldo’s supply had proved superfluous – so Patrick Vieira was brought on a few minutes after the sending off to strengthen the midfield.
‘We did not look even like we were playing with ten,’ continues Marcel. ‘Denilson touched the bar but they were not really dangerous. You think if you are playing ten versus Brazil then maybe Brazil would control it but no – we even scored the third one.’