France : World cup 1998 Host Country
That distinction would go to France, who surprised many people not only by beating heavy-favorite Brazil but by dominating the defending champion in a 3-0 win. French star Zinedine Zidane, who earlier in the tournament was suspended for two matches, came through in the end, scoring twice against Brazil.
France '98 was expanded to 32 teams, from 24, a fitting farewell to outgoing FIFA president Joao Havelange, who left his mark by increasing the game's world appeal. Despite the bigger field, there were relatively few upsets, although World Cup rookie Croatia surprised everyone by reaching the semifinals.
Croatia, a nation that didn't even exist in Italia '90, upset Germany 3-0 in the quarterfinals and beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-place game. Croatian Davor Suker led all scorers in the tournament with six goals.
The Brazilians, winners in 1994, couldn't win their fifth World Cup title but advanced to the championship match despite having lost star scorer Romario -- the Golden Ball (outstanding player) winner in '94 -- to injury before the tournament. Another Brazilian star, the 21-year-old Ronaldo -- who was on the roster but did not play in '94 -- suffered convulsions and had to be rushed to a hospital hours before the championship. He did not have a good game against France, but the two-time FIFA player of the year scored four goals and had three assists in the tournament and won the '98 Golden Ball award.
Another young star made his mark in '98, 18-year-old English phenom Michael Owen. Owen scored one of the best goals of the World Cup, in a thrilling loss to Argentina in the Round of 16, and could be one of the stars to watch.
As for the United States? Nobody expected the U.S. team to win France '98, but probably no one expected them to finish dead last, either. With losses to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia in pool play, the Americans failed to build upon their success in '94, and coach Steve Sampson resigned shortly after the loss to Yugoslavia.
Attacking soccer helped increase the average number of goals per game to 2.63, compared with 2.47 in '94 and well up from the 2.28 average of the defense-dominated 1990 tournament in Italy.
There were a couple of ugly incidents outside the games early in the tournament. Before their team's first match against Tunisia, English fans rampaged through Marseille for three nights, fighting rival fans and police. And, before the Germany-Yugoslavia match, Lens was invaded by neo-Nazi groups; a 44-year-old police officer was beaten into a coma by a German wielding an iron bar.
France : World cup 1938 Host Country
Just as Germany was the focus of worldwide attention, its soccer team was the focus of first-round play. Since Austria had recently been annexed by Germany, the top Austrian players were given the choice of playing for the German national team or not playing at all.
Six of the top Austrian players chose to join the Germans, but star player Mathias "the paper man" Sindelar became a national hero when he refused. But Sindelar's story quickly turned tragic. Saddened by the death of his wife and the annexation of his country, he committed suicide shortly after the World Cup.
Despite the influx of Austrian talent, the Germans couldn't get past the Swiss in the first round. The two teams played to a scoreless tie on June 4, and the game was replayed five days later. Though Germany surged to a 2-0 lead in the first half, the Swiss came back with four unanswered goals in the second to shock the Germans.
All eyes shifted to Italy for a match with host nation France in the quarterfinals. The teams were tied 1-1 after a half, and it seemed as though the French had a golden opportunity to upset a clearly-fatigued Italian team. But Italy surged ahead to win the game 3-1 before 58,455 mostly-disappointed spectators.
Italy's next opponent, Brazil, proved to be even more tired than it was. The Italians won the game 2-1, and would face Hungary in the finals. It wasn't even close. Despite the support of the French fans, the Hungarians were behind 3-1 at the half. They drew to within a goal in the second half, but Italy scored again 10 minutes from time to seal their second World Cup.
How massive could their dynasty have become? We'll never know, as World War II interrupted World Cup play for 12 years. But the 1930s belonged to Italy. In addition to World Cups in 1934 and 1938, the Italians also won the Olympic title in 1936.