France won two of the last 6 World Cups, in 1998 and 2018 (and lost a final in 2006). But which of these two teams was better? Through analyzing several aspects and by comparing the contexts, coach and the different positions of the players, France ’98 seems to be a better team than France ’18.
Despite the fact that France hosted the competition in 1998, the context was much more hostile to Aime Jacquet than it was for Deschamps in 2018. The whole French press eternally criticized Jacquet’s choices and indicated that he wasn’t the man of the hour. Deschamps arrived to Russia in 2018 with the support of the French press. Nevertheless, the style of play of France ‘98 was more solid than France ‘18, and the team witnessed much less moments of weaknesses in 1998 than in 2018.
In 1998, France conceded just 2 goals in 7 games (0.29 goal per game), whereas in 2018 France conceded 3 times more goals in 7 games (0.85 goal per game). Fabien Barthez was a more complete goalkeeper than Hugo Lloris with better footwork and a better anticipation of the shots. But this doesn’t reduce the quality of Hugo Lloris who made decisive saves in France ‘18’s victory, especially against Uruguay. Furthermore, Barthez is not responsible for any of the 2 goals conceded by France during the competition whereas Lloris is directly responsible for the second goal conceded by France against Croatia in the 2018 final.
France’s back 4 (Lizarazu, Thuram, Blanc and Desailly) is arguably one of the best of the history of the game. In the ten matches in which they had lined up together in three major championships – Euro 96, France 98 and Euro 2000 – only three goals were conceded. Even more impressive, in 28 games played together between 1996 and 2000, they achieved 21 wins and 7 draws with no defeats. The only goal they conceded in the 1998 World Cup (the other goal France conceded in the competition against Denmark in the first round was with a B Team) was against Croatia in the semi-final after a very rare alignment error of Lilian Thuram. This back 4 also played a decisive role offensively during the competition with Thuram scoring the 2 goals in France against Croatia (erasing the effects of his rare error) and Laurent Blanc scored the golden goal against Paraguay in the last 16. In 2018, France also had also a solid back 4 (Pavard, Umtiti, Varane and Hernandez). In 2018, Umtiti and Varane also scored decisive goals against Belgium and Uruguay, but if individually they can be compared with the back 4 of ‘98, the complementarity between them wasn’t as efficient, which resulted in a more important number of goals conceded (6) in the competition.
The central and defensive midfields of 1998 (Petit, Deschamps and Karembeu, with Viera as substitute) and 2018 (Pogba, Matuidi and Kante with Tolisso as substitute) have comparable levels and all of these 6 players were playing for the top European clubs when they were crowned world champions. But the edge of France ‘98 comes from the fact that their midfielders scored and assisted more goals than in 2018 with Petit scoring twice and making an assist and Vieira giving an assist.
The best player of these 2 teams were playing as an offensive midfielder. Zinedine Zidane and Antoine Griezmann both scored a decisive goal to win their trophies of 1998 and 2018. Griezmann scored 4 goals, whereas Zidane scored only twice. But 3 of the 4 goals of Griezmann came from penalties whereas Zidane scored his 2 goals from headers in the final. During that period, Zidane was considered, along with the Brazilian Ronaldo, the best player of the game and finished first in the Ballon D’Or ranking that year. Griezmann was then considered among the top 5 players in the world and finished only 3rd in the Ballon D’or ranking that year.
In terms of forwards of the two first 11s, France ‘18 had better players with Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud, compared to Youri Djorkaeff and Stephane Guivarch. Mbappe scored 4 goals in the 2018 World Cup and Giroud made 2 assists, wheras Djorkaeff scored a single goal for 3 assists and Guivarch failed to be decisive offensively during the whole competition. But in terms of goals scored by the whole team, France ‘98 was slightly more efficient with 15 goals scored in 7 games (2.14 goal per game) versus 14 goals in 7 games (2 goals per game) in 2018.
France ‘98 also had a more complete squad with substitutes playing a more important role in the final victory than it was the case of the substitutes in 2018. Players out of the first 11 scored 5 goals and made 4 assists (from Henry, Vieira, Trezeguet and Dugarry) in ’98, whereas in 2018 the only goal or assist from a substitute came from Corentin Tolisso.
As a whole, France ‘98 seem to have been a better team, but in 1998 that winning team was in the peak of its form with several players (Thuram, Desailly, Zidane, Lizarazu, Barthez, Djorkaeff, Petit, Karembeu and Guivarch), with very experienced players playing the role of leaders in the first 11 (Deschamps and Blanc). The 2018 winning team wasn’t at the peak of its level, having young leaders such as Paul Pogba and several players who were in need of improvement such as Hernandez, Pavard, Varane, Umtiti and having the better young player in the world, Kylian Mbappe. Thus, this generation could reach its peak in the next Euro in 2021 or in the next World Cup in 2022 and impress more than the Zizou generation did.