The Momentary Brilliance of Meaningless Football
Italy 3 - 3 Brazil
June 8th, 1997
On June 8th, 1997, the most grotesque, embarrassing, headache beaming, shin splintering, lung pumping, mind-bending, dream arousing, and utterly meaningless football match took place. The 3-3 draw between Italy and Brazil erased both nations footballing heritage they had spent a century constructing. Beaming trophy cases, era-defining footballers, and game revolutionizing tactics did not influence the outcome between these pillars of International football. The match played out like the final round Rocky’s first bout with Apollo Creed. Under the lights of the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, two heavyweights stumbled across the mat on blood-filled legs, swinging their gloves blindly in pursuit of a completely fabricated prize.
The belt that Italy and Brazil competed for was victory at the 1997 Tournoi de France - a prestigious practice session before the 1998 France World Cup the following summer. The Tournoi consisted of a round-robin between England, France, Italy, and Brazil. The victor would be the team with the most victories after their three matches. Though England boarded the plane home with a trophy in hand, the legacy of football’s summer of ‘97 will forever lie with the “Tournament of France” itself.
Billed as a friendly rehearsal for the “Coupe du Monde” twelve months later, 1997’s Tournoi de France produced the most compelling and competitive International tournament in football history.
Football fans may not remember France’s 1998 World Cup prequel, but they certainly remember the first goal of 1997’s Tournoi de France. In the 21st minute of the opening match between France and Brazil, Roberto Carlos scored “that” free-kick, bending the ball around (not over, not under, but around) the four-man French wall. Starting his run-up from inside the center circle, Carlos drove the front-left padding of his left cleat into the ball, spinning it onto the right post of the French goal and into the net from thirty-three meters away. There are kickers in the NFL who can’t score field goals from that distance.
Brazil and Italy entered their face-off as the second and third-ranked National teams in football. A brief look at Brazil and Italy’s squads will prove that FIFA probably took two minutes to decide their rankings. In short, each team was loaded. Italy presented a team that consisted of the Serie A all-stars from Parma, AC Milan, and Juventus. Though their young attack of Del Piero, Albertini, and Vieri posed a severe threat, the Italian’s real strength lay, characteristically, in defense. The two-man partnership of Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro combined the two greatest defenders of all time into a single defense. The AC Milan and Parma defenders linked together with a robust, dynamic, and intelligent partnership the strength of no football fan has witnessed before or since. Though Maldini would not be around to win the World Cup nine years later, Cannavaro would carry the legacy of their defense with him as he lifted the 2006 Jules Rimet trophy that night in Berlin.
Whereas Italy’s squad had the greatest defense in history, Brazil lined up across the halfway line with the most lethal striker duo the world has ever seen. In Ronaldo and Romario, a force nicknamed “Ro-Ro,” Brazil deployed two players who individually revolutionized the role of a striker throughout their respective careers. Romario, regarded as perhaps the most clinical striker of all time, was the ultimate safety valve. If Brazil was in desperate need of a goal, they had to look no further than their number eleven. In 1997 alone, Romario scored 17 goals for Brazil in just 19 appearances. Ronaldo, on the other hand, combined the strength of a rhino with the pace and agility of a gazelle. If you spotted “R9” on the plains of the Serengeti, you’d be emailing Disney about an idea for a new Lion King. Ronaldo’s goal scoring was so unstoppable, attractive, and mouth-watering that, had he not been plagued with knee injuries in the early 2000s, his name would be a constant in any debate involving Pele, Maradonna, Messi, and that Cristiano guy.
The game resembled episode one of Chernobyl, with both teams erupting with alien-like energy that no group of scientists could ever hope to slow down. Italy struck the first blow, knocking the Brazilians to their knees in the 6th minute after a Del Piero header shot past goalkeeper Taffarel. Though Del Piero’s header required patience and force, Vieri’s cross into the box deserves all of the credit. Had Ray Hudson been commentating the match, he indeed would have described the cross as “magisterial!”
The Brazilian Seleçao experienced a second punch to the gut shortly after, thanks to game’s ugliest goal. When Albertini stepped up to take a free-kick from thirty yards out, he may have imagined hitting a strike similar to Roberto Carlos’ free-kick from the previous week. Instead, his shot deflected off the head of Brazilian defender Aldair and sunk into the right corner of the goal. Taffarel stood frozen on his line. If the Brazilian’s could take any consolation from the goal, it would be that Albertini’s absurd deflection of a shot still had less movement than Roberto Carlos’ “banana” kick.
Brazil finally got on the scoreboard ten minutes later with the second own goal of the match. Attempting to catch the Azzurri off-balance after a corner, Roberto Carlos snuck into the left side of the box and blasted a shot off of Lombardo’s outstretched leg. In just over ten minutes, two of the best teams in the world had traded own goals.
Early in the second half, Italy made their final attempt to distance themselves from the potential of a Brazilian attack. The young and slippery Pippo Inzaghi won a penalty just two minutes after coming on to replace Vieri in the 59th minute. Juventus man Alessandro Del Piero hammered the spot-kick into the top left corner of the net, scoring his second and Italy’s third goal of the night. In any standard match, a 3-1 scoreline entering the final half-hour would mean a lazy end to the game. The winning team would take three points, and the losers would save their legs for their next competition. But this match may as well have taken place inside Area 51.
In the 70th minute, the imminent Ronaldo stamped his name into the match with an incredible finish past Pagliuca. Without breaking a sweat, Ronaldo balanced Roberto Carlos’ quick pass into the box on the outside of his right foot. He dropped Costacurta to his feet with a feigned attempt at goal. Finally, Ronaldo kindly presented the fallen Costacurta with a front-row viewing of the real thing, driving a low shot past Pagliuca’s near post. The inevitable finally occurred. Ronaldo got his goal.
But Ronaldo was only one member of Brazil’s infamous strike force. In the 84th minute, Romario reminded the Stade de Gerland of his existence. Romario’s goal in the final minutes of the match to seal the game at 3-3 is simultaneously one of the most instantly brilliant and unexplainable goals ever scored. With the Italy box void of Yellow jerseys, Ronaldo backed towards the Italian defense. As the ball sailed in a looping arc towards his feet, he stabbed the ball into the turf. Attempting to turn and fire a shot, Ronaldo lost control of the ball, being temporarily caught in a swarm of blue. With Maldini to his left and Cannavaro on his back, Ronaldo froze. Cannavaro managed to cut the ball out of Ronaldo’s foot but only into the path of Brazil’s number 10, Leonardo, who had sprinted into the box from the halfway line. Leonardo only managed to get a toe on the ball before the Italian’s again deflected his possession. Only this time, the ball fell into the graceful legs of Romario. Romario twitched and side-stepped through the final Italian defenders, only to walk around the Italian goalkeeper and slot the ball into the back of the net. The goal may be exhausting to describe, but the entire move took only five seconds from the initial pass of the movement until Romario was lifting his arms in celebration.
In a result fitting for the utter meaningless of the competition, the match ended in a draw. After 90 minutes of flair, physicality, yellow cards, own goals, and brilliant finishes each team walked off of the field having gained a single point in the standings.
On paper, Brazil versus Italy in the 1997 Tournoi de France appears devoid of intrigue for the average football fan. Any close examination of the match, however, reveals a contest between two of the most excellent International sides in football history, squaring off in the absolute prime of their existence. Though Italy would win the World Cup in the following decade and Brazil would follow up their 1994 World Cup win with yet another World Cup victory in 2002, neither team regained the skill, chemistry, and potential they displayed on the pitch that night.
As they took the field before kickoff, perhaps the Brazilian and Italian squads recognized that they stood astride on the peak of the footballing world. Maybe they knew the fleeting reality of football, of life, that in minutes they could be cast-off of their height and into the never-ending record books of history. Regardless of their impetus, each team entered the match desiring to retain the pride of their squad for just a few more days. After 90 minutes, both sides left the field with a point gained in a meaningless tournament and the respect and admiration of the footballing world for decades to come.