Who fondly remembers the Rous Cup? Or the England Challenge Cup? The U.S. Cup? The Artemio Franchi Trophy? Anyone? International summer tournaments that aren’t named the World Cup, the European Championships or the Copa América don’t tend to stay long in the memory; even the Confederations Cup has only gained some measure of credibility in recent years.
Usually these tournaments are a mish-mash of teams from various parts of the world, played in sparsely filled stadiums with fringe players trying desperately to stake a claim for the next important competition. And, despite a lack of football in the off-season, it isn’t enough to entice viewers to tune in.
However, there is one tournament that everyone of a certain age recalls; Le Tournoi.
June 1997 saw France, Italy, Brazil and England all converge to contest in a cracker of a tournament that is best remembered for two things: Roberto Carlos’s seemingly physics-defying free kick, and England winning the tournament and receiving a very tacky-looking trophy to boot.
The tournament was held in France as a rehearsal for the following summer’s World Cup (essentially the present-day role of the Confederations Cup). It was staged in four different cities across the country, with Nantes and Montpellier getting a single game each and Lyon and Paris receiving two a piece.
A look through each squad shows how seriously all four nations took the mini tournament. World champions Brazil brought the likes of Cafu, Dunga, Romário and, of course, Ronaldo; France included the coming-of-age Zinedine Zidane, current France coach Didier Deschamps and Youri Djorkaeff; Italy had Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Alex Del Piero and Christian Vieri. And England took David Seaman, Stuart Pearce, Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham and Alan Shearer across the channel. A sprinkling of stardust in every squad.
The tournament kicked off on 3rd June in Lyon between France and Brazil, a matchup which ended in a draw. Both sides, as hosts and champions, had the luxury of not having to qualify for the forthcoming World Cup, giving their Le Tournoi appearances added importance as both were short on competitive matches.
This game is of course famous for Roberto Carlos’ free kick in the 21st minute. Brazil coach Mario Zagallo had given everyone a tantalizing snippet of what Romário and Ronaldo—or Ro-Ro, as they were dubbed—could do together, starting both against Les Bleus.
Brazil’s two finest strikers since Pelé worked brilliantly in the first half, with both taking turns dropping slightly deeper than usual and playing balls into space. It was a foul on Romário twenty minutes in which was to give the tournament its abiding memory.
The free kick was some 35 metres from goal. Roberto Carlos seizes the opportunity and urgently shoos captain Dunga away. Carlos lifts the ball and meticulously examines it—looking for the valve, he would later admit—before delicately placing it on the ground as if it were a treasured toy. His run up was as ludicrous as the strike itself—Carlos had walked as far back as the tip of the centre circle to begin his run—and the rest is history.
Clocked at around 85mph, the goal was described as ‘gravity-defying’ and, whilst Carlos wasn’t exactly an unknown—he had played a season for Inter and had just completed his first season for Real Madrid—the goal instantly made him a household name.
In the aftermath of the goal, people of all ages attempted to emulate the Carlos free kick, inevitably without success. Carlos himself could never replicate the goal and it somehow earned him the tag of ‘free-kick specialist’ for the rest of his career, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In 2010, a team of French scientists published an academic paper on the aerodynamics of the goal. According to the study, the path which the ball took—described as a ‘snail-shell shaped trajectory’—was following a natural curvature. Results found that it didn’t ‘defy gravity’ as many thought, and could be done again, given the same conditions i.e., the player attempting the kick was equal the distance from goal and possessed the same leg strength as the Brazilian.
France would equalise ten minutes into the second half through Marc Keller, a player who endured an instantly forgettable three-year spell at West Ham.
The following day in Nantes saw England face Italy. The two had squared off four months prior, in World Cup qualifying. Italy triumphed on that occasion, winning 1 – 0 at Wembley thanks to a marvellous Gianfranco Zola strike. The return fixture was scheduled for October and England manager Glenn Hoddle, not wanting to give Cesare Maldini something to build on, picked an experimental side to face the Azzurri for the meeting in Le Tournoi.
England played with a composure and tactical sophistication that has rarely been seen since. Hoddle played Paul Scholes and Teddy Sheringham behind Ian Wright and tucked David Beckham into central midfield with Paul Ince in a variation of a 3-5-2.
England moved the ball around with purpose and looked like the most threatening side. In the 25th minute Scholes—making his full international debut—pinged a wonderful ball over the top for Wright to chase. Angelo Peruzzi hesitated in coming to meet the ball and was punished as Wright brilliantly volleyed the ball into the bottom corner with his left foot. It was the first goal Italy had conceded under Maldini.
Just shy of twenty minutes later, England had a second. A Stuart Pearce ball on the left hand side of the Italy half found Wright, the striker feeding it inside the penalty box for Scholes who lashed it past Peruzzi on the half-volley. England would run out comfortable winners. “We’ve worked at this system in training over the last 12 months,” Hoddle said following the victory. Practice indeed paying off.
Hoddle would tactically outmanoeuvre his counterpart in Rome four months later to secure the point England needed to qualify for France ’98 in a defensive master class, England ironically showcasing tactics that their opponents were legendary for.
On June 7, England would meet France at the Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier in their first meeting since Euro ’92. The Three Lions would claim a 1 – 0 victory thanks to a poacher’s goal from Shearer following a sight that Manchester United fans would come to remember all too well; a Fabien Barthez blunder.
The 1994 World Cup finalists battled it out in barnstormer of a game in Lyon the next night that ensured England won the tournament. The match finished 3-3, but both sides could’ve added more, such was the quantity of chances missed during the course of a scintillating 90 minutes.
Whilst the Azzurri struggled against England with Zola and Pierluigi Casiraghi up front for the Brazil game, Maldini started Juventus duo Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri. Within six minutes Vieri had teed up Del Piero for the opener. Italy added a second through an own goal before conceding one of their own.
A famous picture from this game shows Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro flanking Ronaldo from either side and the pair of legendary defenders sliding for the ball. Neither could get close. Ronaldo was only weeks away from joining Inter Milan from Barcelona and would spend the next five years dodging similar tackles.
It would be Ronaldo—bizarrely allowed to play in the tournament despite the La Liga season not being finished and Barcelona still in the title race—who reduced the deficit to one with a smart finish before Romário, not wanting to be outdone by his younger strike partner, danced past several defenders and Gianluca Pagliuca to level the score. Michel Platini would go on to describe the game as the ‘perfect aperitif for the World Cup’.
The final set of fixtures were of little consequence, other than to determine the final standings. England faced Brazil in the Parc des Princes on June 10th. Whilst against Italy and France Hoddle’s men showed they were making progress not only tactically but also technically, against Brazil old anxieties crept in.
Time and again Brazil breezed through their opposition with deft touches and quick interchanges, bewitching their opposition with fast, incisive passing and flamboyant skill. Leonardo and Djalminha toyed with the English defenders.
In the 60th minute Flávio Conceição passed the ball to Ronaldo, who instantly zipped it around the corner to Leonardo. The English players couldn’t react quickly enough which gave the PSG midfielder enough time to slide an inch perfect ball past Gareth Southgate into the feet of Romário and, well, you can imagine the outcome.
Romário took two touches before scoring the most Romário of Romário goals—a gliding toe-poke into David Seaman’s bottom left hand corner. Nobody could make a toe-poke look as elegant or controlled as the Brazilian. He almost made it an art form during his twenty-year career.
France and Italy would wrap up the tournament with an entertaining 2-2 draw, Zidane and Djorkaeff scoring two goals worthy of a trip to YouTube. Casiraghi had scored earlier for Italy before Del Piero won and converted a penalty in the final minute of the tournament to win the Golden Boot. Despite playing in seven tournaments, Le Tournoi would prove to be his apex, scoring more goals in this tournament than in the next three World Cups combined.
Winning the tournament capped off a prosperous 12 months for England. The valiant semi-final defeat to Germany at Euro ’96 followed by their displays in Le Tournoi gave fans hope that England were on the cusp of a new dawn. A mixture of established stars and a young, hugely talented generation under the stewardship of a tactically polished coach in Glenn Hoddle, suggested the future was bright. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
One year later, Italy would reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup before getting knocked out by France. Cesare Maldini’s indecisiveness in choosing between Roberto Baggio and Del Piero to partner Christian Vieri ultimately thwarted their chances. It would be France and Brazil—minus Romário—who contested the World Cup final.
England, utilising a 3-4-1-2, narrowly lost out to Argentina in the round of 16. Hoddle would be gone not long after, amidst a storm of controversy.
The FA would hire Kevin Keegan as a replacement and, by Euro 2000, they had reverted to type as they played 4-4-2 and failed to make it out of the group stage. Yet in the summer of 1997, everything seemed possible.
By Emmet Gates. Emmet is a freelance football writer who has been featured on IBWM, FourFourTwo and The Set Pieces. Follow him on Twitter here.
Header image credit goes fully to Global Panorama.