The day I won the 1998 World Cup, I woke up feeling very calm and very confident.
Throughout the tournament, the French national team had been staying at Clairefontaine, which, on that morning, was a beautiful sight. Within the grounds there was a castle and a forest, so the first thing I did was open the curtains and windows and absorb this picturesque, rustic environment.
I breathed in the scent of the flowers and observed the surrounding nature: you could even see squirrels and other animals roaming about the place. It was completely tranquil, far removed from the babble and chaos of the World Cup finals. I decided not to shatter this peacefulness by turning on the TV, listening to the radio or reading any newspapers.
Eventually, I had to join my team-mates and the staff for our morning meal. But that earlier sense of ease remained with me. Over breakfast, I talked about nothing and everything with my colleagues, most of whom were relaxed and composed, content in the same state of quietude as I.
This may sound unlikely, but one thing must be understood. Already, we had gone further than any French team before us, including Platini’s generation. Consequently, a kind of serenity had spread throughout the team – not because we thought the job was done, but because we felt we had already achieved something great, and could almost touch our dream.
Of course, I could feel that one or two were nervous – some players didn’t talk a lot, if at all. The most important thing on the day of the World Cup final is to manage your emotions, but in football it is very difficult to do so. You need to find the right balance between stress and relaxation: too much either way is not good.
We all had our personal way of approaching the final. We were a team, of course, but it’s natural that each individual has his own process: it’s about personality, how you manage stress. Luckily, we had about three or four hours downtime before we were due to depart Clairefontaine about six o’clock, which allowed us to switch off by taking a nap.
But as soon as we left the chateau, reality exploded.
There were people lining the streets, scaling trees, sitting on top of their cars, climbing up electricity poles. They were everywhere.
They followed our bus with their cars, their bikes. It was like the convoy of the Tour de France. At the beginning there were ten or twenty cars and motorcycles: after half an hour there were hundreds behind us, all blasting their horns.
It was about an hour’s journey to the Stade de France, and we passed through several villages along the way. It was so amazing to see how the locals simply stopped their cars and poured onto the street as we went by. They were frenzied, jumping about screaming and shouting – you have no idea how it feels when you’re sitting on a coach watching these scenes unfold.
Inside the bus, we were silent, running through the game in our heads. But it was so important for us to have seen these people. They sent us so much love and energy. They really believed in us – it gives me goosebumps just remembering it.
We knew we were on a mission. This was something bigger than football. We had realised this after Laurent Blanc’s golden goal against Paraguay at Lens. On route back to Clairefontaine after that match, Vincent Candela started to sing Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’, and soon all of us were singing along.
From that game onwards through the quarters and semis, the support from the French public was incredible. Even people who didn’t care about the sport, who knew nothing about it, were fascinated – and we were proud that we touched the heart of everyone in France, not just football supporters.
Despite everything, I was still very calm when we arrived at the stadium. That’s not to say I didn’t experience some anxiety. There were so many people approaching us and wishing us good luck that you could almost convince yourself failure was impossible – but the flipside is that you become aware that if you do fail, you will disappoint a lot of people.
That pressure is hard to ignore.
We were aware of the rumours that Ronaldo was sick. Various different whispers were circulating, but the most significant thing we’d heard was that he had been spending hours playing video games.
But we weren’t focused just on him. Certainly, he was the main man for Brazil, but when you look at the team, they had so many great players, so for us the preparation was about much more than O Fenômeno.
Prior to kickoff, there was a ceremony and, for some reason, a fashion show run by Yves Saint Laurent. Sitting on a nearby bench, with my headphones on, listening to Mozart at full volume, I could see everything. I loved being part of what was going on, just observing the action all around me. Like a spectator. I was engaged in the show and briefly forgot about the fact I was preparing for the final.
Eventually, things got going.
We controlled the game but didn’t create too many chances. Brazil were dangerous, and we knew that. The game was cagey. Still, we managed to break the deadlock within half an hour. It was fortunate that we scored so early. We were tough defensively, but knew we could score against any opponent, and our strategy was to get the first goal and hold onto the lead.
Playing against Brazil, you always know their team spirit is fragile. If you can put doubt in their mind, they will revert to playing individually and forget their teammates. That day, we made them frustrated. They started to shoot from everywhere. Some of them even started to insult each other on the pitch.
When we saw this happen, we knew we were going to win.
They came back in the second half, and forced Fabien Barthez into some great saves. But the frustration that we saw never left them.
The feeling that came over me when I scored was very bizarre. It was almost as if it wasn’t me who got the goal.
I’ve re-watched the final three times since then, and each time I have the same feeling. I can’t quite bring myself to believe it’s me on the pitch scoring the third goal in the World Cup final against Brazil. I know it is – but somewhere within me it’s like it’s someone else. A different Manu.
I have no memories of the noise or sounds – just the images I see when I look at it again. I remember Patrick Vieira jumping on me, and that after I scored I ran over to the left-hand side of the pitch and fell on the ground like a piece of shit. I had no celebration planned, it was just natural. Nirvana.
I’m not a natural goalscorer, so doing it in a World Cup final was indescribable.
We are all looking for a reason in our lives, to help us get up every morning. That day, at that moment, it was simply a case that I was in the right place at the right time: being watched by a billion people as I slipped the ball past Claudio Taffarel.
It’s a weird feeling to be aware that you’re at the centre of attention at this precise moment.
There were so many different feelings, and it’s impossible to explain them. If I have achieved anything in my life that even approaches that moment in terms of emotion, it would be the birth of my daughters – to have this sense of importance is, for me, the definition of the meaning of life.
I’m a lucky man, and I’m very happy. But since I’ve retired, it’s difficult for me to match the same level of emotion I experienced when I was playing football. That feeling of fighting for something alongside your teammates – it’s hard to experience that in normal life.
I’m just glad that I had the chance.