It was what I call my Miles Davis moment,” revealed Lilian Thuram in 2007. “Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz – everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful. He doesn’t have to think about it; it’s pure instinct.”
But even 20 years on from his two goals in France’s victory against Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup, the man who went on to become Les Bleus’ most-capped player with 142 appearances and never found the net again can still scarcely believe the events of 8 July 1998.
“The likelihood of me scoring was … impossible,” Thuram told Le Monde last week. “This is what people realise: they fully understand that I did not understand what is happening. If I had been told before, I would have laughed, I would have said: ‘It’s a joke!’”
After needing an extra-time winner from Laurent Blanc to defeat Paraguay in the last 16 and then edging a nerve‑shredding penalty shootout against Italy in the quarter‑finals, France went into the semi-final on home soil attempting to reverse the so-called jinx that had led them to be eliminated at that stage on three previous occasions: 1958, 1982 and 1986.
Their opponents were Miroslav Blazevic’s Croatia, who were competing in their first World Cup and caused shockwaves in the previous round with a 3-0 victory against the European champions, Germany, in Lyon.
“In some ways it was a surprise, but in other ways it wasn’t,” Davor Suker, who has been president of the Croatian Football Federation since 2012, recalled. “If you look at our team we had some fantastic players who were playing for big clubs in Europe. Zvonimir Boban was playing for Milan, Slaven Bilic and Igor Stimac were both playing in England, and I was playing for Real Madrid.”
Nonetheless, reaching the last four just three years after the last shots had been fired in the Croatian war of independence was a monumental achievement and Suker led the celebrations at full-time against Germany by proudly parading around the stadium with the new national flag attached to a corner post. Four days later, and with World Cup fever running high in Zagreb and Paris, the two teams ran out at the Stade de France to meet their destiny.
Yet after all the hype, a tense first half produced little action. Seeing their opportunity slipping away the France manager, Aimé Jacquet, warned his players not to fear defeat. As he prepared to return to the pitch for the second half, Thuram was greeted by Mario Stanic, then a teammate at Parma. “He told me: ‘This match is ours.’ And I answered him: ‘This match is not yours.’”
Less than 25 seconds after the restart, however, disaster struck as Suker raced on to a brilliant pass from Aljosa Asanovic and slotted the ball past Fabien Barthez. The replays showed it was Thuram, operating at right-back rather than in the central position he preferred, playing him onside. “All of a sudden, it was like a dream escaping,” remembered the offender. “It’s as if you’ve been working all your life and there’s something you’re going to miss. Stanic’s sentence came back to me. But it’s not possible. It does not belong to him, it belongs to me.”
Gripped by sudden urgency because of his mistake, Thuram surged up the field like a man possessed. Within 30 seconds, he had wrestled the ball off Boban on the edge of Croatia’s box, taken the return pass from Youri Djorkaeff and dispatched an unstoppable shot with his right foot into the net. Supporters in the stands rubbed their eyes in disbelief at the identity of the goalscorer as he was mobbed by his teammates. The best was yet to come.
Both teams had chances to take the lead but with 20 minutes remaining Thuram played an attempted one‑two with Thierry Henry and raced after the ball on the right edge of the penalty area. Another powerful challenge saw Robert Jarni’s attempted clearance fall perfectly on to his left foot and, without breaking stride, Thuram curled it past Drazen Ladic.
“I do not know how to shoot with my left foot. It does not make sense for me to strike with the left,” Thuram recalled. “It was completely instinctive. If I had ever thought for a moment, I would have made a pass. We do not know why it happened but it worked.”
Born in Guadeloupe and raised by his mother in the tough banlieues of Paris after moving there as an eight‑year‑old, Thuram was made a member of the Legion d’Honneur – the highest civilian honour – by the French government after the tournament as Jacquet’s side went on to beat Brazil 3-0 in the final. He has since become a campaigner against racism in football and society at large, accusing Pelé of not doing enough to combat it a few months ago.
Now, led by a teenager who was not born until five months after they won their first, France’s class of 2018 will attempt to emulate Thuram’s heroics against very familiar opponents.