Odd-numbered years pose a problem for football fans, namely how to fill the summer months when weekends aren’t awash with televised matches. The Confederations Cup dutifully fills in every June the year before a World Cup, while the European Under-21 Championships manage to at least keep things ticking over. If neither of those succeeds in whetting your appetite, though, you might wish to recall (if you’re of a certain age) the summer of 1997, the year before France was due to host the World Cup. At the time, the Confederations Cup was a bi-annual tournament held in Saudi Arabia rather than the country hosting the forthcoming World Cup. Something had to fill the June void, therefore, and that thing was Le Tournoi.
The organisers of Le Tournoi might have had a tough job marketing it to the public until they persuaded four of the biggest teams in international football to take part. The tournament (which is apt here as ‘Le Tournoi’ is the direct French translation of those words) was arranged as an organisational and footballing warm-up for France one year out from its big moment. Joining them in a competition played in a mini-league round-robin format were reigning world champions Brazil, 1994 World Cup runners-up Italy and a resurgent England team still buzzing from the roaring success of Euro 1996.
Lyon’s Stade de Gerland hosted the opening match of Le Tournoi, pitting the host nation against Brazil. If the organisers were nervous about whether football fans would take to the tournament, those fears were allayed 21 minutes into its first match because of a moment that has entered sporting legend. Brazil won a free kick 35 yards from goal, a half-chance maybe but probably too far out for a direct shot. Dunga placed the ball on the requisite spot, with left-back Roberto Carlos strolling across to assume responsibility for the impending set piece. The young defender was developing a reputation as a dead ball specialist and his incredibly lengthy run-up suggested that he was going to go for broke. As he smacked the ball, it veered drastically to the right and seemed to be flying harmlessly wide. Then, for reasons which almost defy logic, the ball spun back towards goal, its airborne pace not diminishing in the slightest, and whistled past the stunned French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
Had social media existed 21 years ago, Carlos’ iconic free kick would have become the world’s most prominent meme within minutes. Even the Brazilian’s team-mates looked almost disbelieving at what the 24-year-old had just done. Replay after replay served only to deepen the sense of ‘did that just happen?’ among viewers. Everybody remembers that goal, but very few could recall what else happened in that match or even how it finished. Carlos’ unique free-kick deserved to win a World Cup final; it ultimately proved insufficient to win this Le Tournoi encounter, as France levelled early in the second half through Marc Keller to earn a 1-1 draw. It was the striker’s only goal for Les Bleus in seven caps and his moment would be majorly overshadowed by Carlos’ earlier exploits.
The following night, England and Italy met in Nantes and Glenn Hoddle’s men were on a revenge mission after the Azzurri had won 1-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier four months previously. That result, sealed by Chelsea maestro Gianfranco Zola, put Italy in the box seat to qualify automatically and left England staring at the lottery of the play-offs, not an ideal scenario after they failed to make it to the previous finals in the USA.
The Three Lions were outstanding against their Italian counterparts and a 22-year-old debutant caught the eye. A young, red-haired midfielder by the name of Paul Scholes provided a sumptuous 40-yard pass for Ian Wright, who was in the twilight of his career, to open the scoring. Scholes then got on the scoresheet to cap a magnificent performance as England emphatically defeated Cesare Maldini’s side.
Next up for England was a meeting against France in Montpellier. Both teams had missed out on the previous World Cup in 1994 but both had brought through an assortment of young talent which was spurring a mid-decade revival. In a tight contest, a young Sol Campbell excelled at centre-back while wingers David Beckham and Paul Gascoigne adapted surprisingly neatly to restrained roles, not unlike those of full-backs.
The only goal of the night came in the 86th minute and it owed to an error from the eccentric Barthez, who allowed Teddy Sheringham’s shot to slip from his clutches. Alan Shearer, then the world’s most expensive player after his £15 million move to Newcastle the previous year, showed all the clinical instincts of a world-class striker to pounce on the unexpected gift and consign France to a first home defeat in nearly four years.
Next up was Italy v Brazil in Lyon, a repeat of the 1994 World Cup final which proved majorly disappointing, having ended goalless before going to penalties. This clash turned out to be the antithesis of the cagey affair in Pasadena three years previously. Juventus hotshot Alessandro del Piero fired Italy ahead inside six minutes and an own goal from Aldair midway through the first half doubled the Azzurri’s lead. Brazil then benefitted from an own goal to claw one back, soon-to-be Crystal Palace flop Attilio Lombardo becoming the second player to score into the wrong net in a madcap match.
A Del Piero penalty on the hour mark restored Italy’s two-goal advantage before Ronaldo, regarded in some quarters as the world’s best player at the tender age of 20, made it 3-2. With six minutes remaining, Romario drew Brazil level and the teams ended all square. That result meant that with a round of matches still to be played, England had won Le Tournoi as their six-point haul could not be matched by any of the other teams. The World Cup triumph of 1966 was a distant memory; the Rous Cup claimed in 1989 had been plain forgotten as that particular ‘tournament’ was no longer being contested and only involved two games anyway.
Vermilion-clad England took to the field against Brazil at the Parc des Princes knowing that they would be lifting a trophy two hours later. Hoddle’s team had given an excellent account of themselves in their two previous outings but, with nothing riding on this contest, their intensity dropped massively and they routinely coughed up possession to the team that was still the best in the world. On 61 minutes, a trademark Romario toe-poke beat David Seaman and secured a futile victory for Brazil while pooping England’s party somewhat.
The trophy, an uninspiring piece which consisted of a football sitting atop a wooden frame, was hoisted by Shearer, who unusually sported a long-sleeved shirt and just about mustered a smile upon its presentation. The tournament ended on 11 June, also in Paris, with a 2-2 draw between France and Italy. The home side led twice but were pegged back late on with a Del Piero penalty, a goal which made him the competition’s top scorer.
England returned home with a discernible sense of satisfaction at finishing ahead of three top nations to win Le Tournoi and the momentum continued throughout 1997, a famous draw in Rome against Italy taking Hoddle’s side directly to the World Cup and consigning the Azzurri to the play-offs. Alas, the tournament would not be a hugely accurate indicator of what was to come at the following year’s global showcase. England were the first of the four Le Tournoi participants to be eliminated, bowing out in the last 16 against Argentina, while third-placed France, winless at the mini-tournament in 1997, memorably lifted their first World Cup title with a 3-0 thrashing of Brazil at Stade de France, which only opened in the early months of 1998.
Le Tournoi would not be repeated; instead, the summer prior to a World Cup was subsequently dedicated to the Confederations Cup being staged in the host country as a dress rehearsal for the main event. This unique tournament lasted for one edition and nine days, but it gave England their most recent honour at senior level and it gave the world one of the greatest free kicks of all time, a ‘wow’ moment that is still recalled more than two decades later and came to define the glorious, trophy-laden career of Roberto Carlos.