Football is universally known as “the beautiful game”, and yet sometimes, it can be damn ugly. As fans, I’m sure we have all celebrated our teams scoring a dodgy goal, or nervously laughed as a player narrowly escaped a second yellow card from an incompetent referee. By enlarge though, we like to see the game played in the best possible spirit. Cristiano Ronaldo is revered as one of the best players in the world – to some, the best – and yet for so long, he was known as one of the games serial divers. Put simply, a cheat. Players dive, cheat and con the referee at every level of the game, from the dizzy heights of the Champions League down to the average Sunday league game and nine times out of ten these instances are unpunished, or at least forgotten shortly after the full-time whistle. Every now and then, however, an incident happens that fans simply cannot forgive.
Luis Suarez comes to mind, of course. His bites and slurs have ensured that his legacy will forever be known for his antics rather than his sublime talent. In Scotland, the former Hearts winger Saulius Mikoliūnas is still lambasted for being a “diving bastard” for his shameful flop against Scotland in a must-win qualifying game back in 2007. To me, the worst example of cheating I have ever seen from a professional footballer occurred in one of the biggest games, a World Cup semi-final. The culprit? Slaven Bilić.
Slaven Bilić won a lot of plaudits in the late 2000s as manager of the Croatian national side. He took over from Zlatko Kranjčar after an unsuccessful World Cup campaign in 2006. He was a key member of the squad that took the Croatians to the final four of the 1998 World Cup and his passion earned him the job. He took his beloved Croatia to the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 after topping a group that included eventual finalists Germany, but faltered against a resilient Turkey side.
He failed to take the Croatians to the World Cup in South Africa, and despite guiding the team to the European Champions in 2012 and gaining many plaudits for his side’s performance in Poland-Ukraine, they stumbled at the first hurdle. His track record since departing the national side in 2012 has been hit and miss. Poor spells at Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas tarnished a strongly cultivated reputation, although he did build a West Ham side built around Dimitri Payet that was a real force to be reckoned with.
He is a fiery character when backed into a corner, as many a journalist has found out to their shame, though not many managers at the top level aren’t. He does come across extremely well in the TV studio though. He has been a presence in the punditry for ITV over the past few international tournaments and has received numerous plaudits for the candour and elegance with which his points are conveyed.
The point of this article is not to analyse the managerial career of Slaven Bilić, nor is it to look back at his player career, per se. The point is to look back at one particular moment of his long career. One moment of sheer bastardry that has seemingly been forgotten over the years, covered up on account of his rock star persona that he has worked so hard to cultivate over the past two decades.
What does every football-loving kid want to do when he grows up? They want to play in a World Cup final. They want to win the World Cup. Laurent Blanc grew up in the 1970s – a dark era for French football where the national side missed two consecutive World Cup’s, bookended by group stage failures. He would have grown up desperate to right the wrongs of his beloved country, and in July 1998 he was within touching distance of completing that dream: of playing in a World Cup final.
France defender Laurent Blanc missed the World Cup final in 1998, in his native France, due to some despicable play-acting from the Croatian defender. This scandalous show of diving overshadowed a wonderful World Cup semi-final that oozed class and elegance from both teams. Blanc missed the moment that his whole life had been leading towards, and it was all Slaven Bilić’s fault.
Both France and Croatia progressed through the group stages, France topping their group while Croatia came in second, behind Argentina. The knockouts saw off beatable sides in the last 16 before bypassing tougher opposition in the quarter-finals – France needing penalties to see off Italy while the Croatians beat Germany 3-0.
This route lead to a meeting between the hosts, France, and the plucky underdogs, Croatia, in the iconic Stade de France stadium in Saint-Denis. The neutral was split, both teams were so likeable, so easy on the eye, that either side could win, so long as the game lived up to the hype. It did. The game was magnificent. There were moments of sheer magic and French defender Lilian Thuram played the game of his life. The game was marred by Slaven Bilić, however.
France were the strong team in the early phases of the match and their lynchpin, Zinedine Zidane, was running Croatia ragged. He was forced into hitting pot-shots from afar however, on account of the focused Croatian defence.
After a full half of French dominance, top scorer Davor Šuker sucker-punched Les Bleus seconds into the second half. Playmaker Aljoša Asanović chipped a glorious through ball to Šuker, who evaded the French offside trap. Šuker took a touch to steady himself, stabbing the ball beyond Fabian Barthez and putting his country ever closer to the World Cup final.
Croatia were in dreamland, or at least they were for a whole minute. Lilian Thuram picked an important time to score his first ever international goal. The fullbacks’ high pressing dispossessed Croatia’s captain, Zvonimir Boban 25 yards from goal. He passed the ball to Youri Djorkaeff, who returned the pass back to Thuram, usurping sweeper Igor Štimac. Thuram took the shot on first time, hitting it past the goalkeepers outstretched left hand and into the back of the net, much to the enjoyment of the many French fans inside the Stade de France.
France were lifted by their equaliser and continued to pummel Croatia. From a corner kick, a game of pinball ensued in the Croatian box. Both Emmanuel Petit and Zidane had shots that were blocked. Croatia survived the onslaught, but the warning signs were there. France were demonstrating some terrific football and were knocking at the door with increasing persistence.
Twenty-three minutes after scoring his first goal for France, Lilian Thuram scored his second and final goal for France. As with his first goal it was Thuram’s tenacity and perseverance that paid off as he stole possession from a Croatian defender. The culprit was Robert Jarni. Thuram used his Gladiator-esque body strength to batter Jarni asunder before turning and blasting his shot with his left foot into the bottom corner. The then-Parma full-back ran off in celebration, knee sliding and pulling off a “cool-guy” hand-on-face pose.
With fifteen minutes to go, Slaven Bilić stole the show for all the wrong reasons. At a free kick, the ball curled wide of both Bilić and Blanc. The former fell to the ground, writhing in agony. Replays indicated that both players were pulling each other’s shirts, grappling with one another to gain an advantage. As Blanc went to push off his opponent the former Manchester United man’s hand brushed the chin of Bilić. Bilić took this as an opportunity to act like he had taken an uppercut from Muhammad Ali, holding his forehead before rolling about in faux agony.
The reaction of Blanc said it all. There was no anger, as can so often be seen when a player is wrongfully sent off, nor were there the tears of Gazza, when he realised he would miss the World Cup final, if only England had beaten West Germany. Just exasperation. Sheer exasperation. It was the reaction of a man who knew that he had been cheated. Blanc knew that there was nothing he could say or do which would change a damn thing.
Despite playing without Blanc for the last fifteen minutes, the hosts progressed to the final. France won that final, outclassing Brazil in what can only be described as a Zinedine Zidane masterclass. France won the 1998 World Cup, but they won it without Blanc. I do not mean to do Laurent Blanc a disservice; I am sure that his presence around training in the days leading up to the final, but none of that would have been as emotional for Blanc to play in the World Cup final was invaluable. He certainly played his part in helping France reach the final too, conceding only two goals in the opening six games of the tournament before his missed final.
He was cheated by Slaven Bilić in deplorable fashion and missed out on a dream that he would have had since he was a small child. He was a team player and rejoiced when his country won the greatest prize in football, although watching it from the sidelines compared to lifting the trophy simply cannot have felt the same.
This shameful event happened over 20 years ago and Blanc has gone on to win many a trophy since that fateful July evening in 1998. Over a decade after the event and Bilić was asked about his play-acting. His reaction? He stuck to his guns. He insists that he is sorry that Blanc missed the final, but that he felt he was struck and that he owed it to his team to highlight this to the referee.
In today’s VAR infested game the outcome may have been the same. Blanc caught Bilić, barely. But it was not enough to topple a fully-grown man, and the fact that the Croatian held on to a part of his face that wasn’t even struck was deceptive and cowardly. Some may believe that Bilić did the right thing, but in my eyes he is a cheat who robbed a talented professional of playing in the ultimate football match. For the sake of the French fans, I am just glad that they were able to win the final. The only thing worse than losing a star player for the final would have been to suffer defeat as a consequence. Shame on you, Slaven. Shame on you.