Le Tournoi: The Forgettable Competition with an Immortal Highlight
It has been 20 years since Le Tournoi gave football one of the greatest goals of all time. Roberto Carlos' strike lit up the competition, but it was England who triumphed in this oft-forgotten international contest.
It is among the most famous 45 seconds of footage in football history. Brazil are playing France at Lyon's Stade de Gerland and the visitors have just won a free-kick 35 yards from goal. The diminutive wing-back Roberto Carlos carefully places the ball on the turf, meticulously adjusting its position by millimetres, as if searching for the perfect panel to strike. He begins pacing backwards, retreating a full 20 yards, then stops at the centre circle. The ensuing run-up is almost comical: a tiptoe sprint followed by a relaxed jog. Then he hits the ball – 'lashes it' might be better terminology – and before the crowd can fully comprehend what has happened it has set the back of the net rippling violently, as if caught in a storm at sea.
It is evidently a wonderful strike, though the replay reveals that this is far more than the average belting free-kick. Viewed from behind Carlos, it is evident that the ball bends at an incredible, indeed scarcely believable angle. Having seemed destined to end up among the fans to the left of French 'keeper Fabien Barthez, it somehow clips the inside of the post and leaves the goalie stumbling towards thin air. The little Brazilian is deservingly mobbed by his teammates.
It is safe to assume that almost every football fan knows this sequence – but do they know which tournament it took place in?
Though some certainly do, many are hazy on the details of the competition, while other are entirely unsure what Brazil were doing in France that day. The engagement was part of the oft forgotten Tournoi de France – better known as Le Tournoi – a 'friendly tournament' played at grounds in Paris, Nantes, Montpellier and Lyon 12 months ahead of France staging the 1998 World Cup. Four teams participated: the hosts, England, Italy and Brazil.
A year on from their meeting at Stade de Gerland the same two sides would play again in the 1998 World Cup Final. But in the summer of '97, it was England who reigned supreme.
Before basking in that very faded glory, however, we must attempt to work out exactly what Le Tournoi was. At a glance it bears some resemblance to the modern Confederations Cup, in that it was played in the country which would host the following year's World Cup as a sort of dry run. It was also a money maker; it is worth noting that in the UK the games were broadcast on Sky Sports, whereas the World Cup is legally bound to free-to-air channels.
Yet it was not a true forerunner of the Confederations Cup, which was already active by 1997. Though it has changed in some ways over the past 25 years, this has always featured some or all of FIFA's confederational champions. Le Tournoi possessed none.
And so it was, above all, a competition made for television. The combatants were all global heavyweights, producing four must-see games between teams stuffed with recognisable names.
That aspect can often disappoint at all-star friendly tournaments: the teams are big hitters, but some of the star players often remain at home.
But in this respect Le Tournoi exceeded expectations. As well as the aforementioned Carlos, Brazil called upon Ronaldo, Romario and their surly skipper Dunga among others; France brought Zidane, Vieira and Desailly; and the Italian contingent included Del Piero, Zola and Maldini.
And then there were the English.
This was a buoyant time for the Three Lions. The humiliation of not qualifying for World Cup '94 was largely forgotten, while the heartbreaking but ultimately successful Euro '96 campaign was fresh in the national conciseness. Baddiel & Skinner's refrain of "It's coming home" still reverberated around stadia across the country and a group of gifted young players were coming to the fore. In stark contrast to the pessimism of 2017, the summer of 1997 was characterised by genuine hope around England's national side.
The team that contested Le Tournoi was largely the one that would go on to fall short at France '98: David Seaman in goal; a mix of youth and experience in defence; a midfield possessing the grit of Paul Ince and Manchester United flair courtesy of David Beckham and Paul Scholes; and guaranteed goals up front thanks to Alan Shearer and Teddy Sherringham. Euro '96 boss Terry Venables was gone, but the promising young Glenn Hoddle had arrived in his stead. Hope sprung eternal.
The tournament employed a round-robin format, with each team playing each other once and the winner decided by points. It's easy to imagine that a 2017 version would have been expanded to include a final between the top two, and in truth this would have made for a more satisfying contest.
The tournament began with France taking on Brazil in Lyon, where Carlos lit up the game with his 21st-minute free-kick. The French levelled in the second half thanks to Marc Keller, a 29-year-old striker who would later play for West Ham. It was his first and only international goal, a tally only slightly eclipsed by his five in 44 for the Hammers.
24 hours later England clashed with Italy in Nantes. Veteran Arsenal goalscorer Ian Wright put his side 1-0 up just before the half hour, with Scholes adding a second shortly before half time. This was the Three Lions' first win over Italy for 20 years and as stylish a showing as could be dreamed of from an England side. Hoddle experimented with his team and was rewarded handsomely. Among the fresh faces was a 22-year-old Scholes, who made his full international debut that day and marked it with a goal.
The third game pitched a buoyant England side against France. If ending a 20-year drought against Italy was cathartic, consider that their 1-0 victory over Zidane and co. made them the first English side to beat the French on home turf since 1949. Even Stuart Pearce couldn't remember back that far.
The only goal of the game came less than five minutes from time when Fabien Barthez fumbled the ball into the path of Alan Shearer. The Newcastle striker required no further invitation to tuck it home.
The following day Italy and Brazil played out a 3-3 draw at Stade de Gerland. Alessandro del Piero opened the scoring on six minutes, and the Azzurri were 2-0 up after 23 minutes following an own goal from Aldair.
The Brazilians pegged one back on 35 minutes when Attilio Lombardo – perhaps daydreaming about his impending move to Crystal Palace – put the ball into his own net. Despite this, Italy appeared safe once more when Del Piero coolly dispatched a penalty on 61 minutes.
But Brazil roused themselves to produce a grandstand finish. 20-year-old phenomenon Ronaldo made it 3-2, before his veteran strike partner Romario levelled the score at 3-3 with less than 10 minutes to play.
So, approaching the final pair of games, France and Italy both had a point a piece; Brazil had two and England sat atop the table with a perfect six. The outcome of the competition was already decided: England had secured Le Tournoi with a game to spare.
If the celebrations were already muted, given that this was a minor and ultimately meaningless international tournament, they became positively damp when England lost their concluding game 1-0 to Brazil. Italy and France would later draw their final game 2-2.
It was thus a blueprint for England showings over the next 20 years: promise much beforehand, initially deliver, then fall short. There was of course no shame in losing to Brazil – they were the reigning world champions and just a few weeks later secured the Copa America title. Only in light of England's subsequent showings – particularly World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016 – does it seem symbolic.
At the time Le Tournoi was heralded as a step forward for a team that showed real signs of progress. What's more, it served as a catalyst for a strong end to World Cup qualifying that saw Hoddle's side beat Moldova 4-0 at Wembley, then secure a goalless draw away in Italy. With the Azzurri having dropped points in a 0-0 draw in Georgia, this was enough to send England to France as group winners. The Italians would join them, but required a nervy play-off victory over Russia to book their ticket.
Ultimately neither side fared especially well at World Cup '98. England escaped the group despite losing 2-1 to Romania, only to exit in the Round of 16 following a thrilling clash with Argentina. Italy made it to the quarter-finals, but a penalty defeat to hosts France dashed their hopes.
Better was to come for Le Tournoi's other two teams. 12 months on from the friendly tournament they met once more, this time in the biggest game in world football, where the French ran riot with a 3-0 victory over a subdued Brazil.
What happened in the summer of 1997 thus became something of an irrelevance. Few remember images of Alan Shearer lifting the modest Le Tournoi trophy above his head, a hint of a grin on his face, though it would be the last competition he won for club or country.
What everyone does remember, however, is Roberto Carlos and his physics-defying free-kick. The competition may have been forgettable, but what the Brazilian did that day will be recalled long after Le Tournoi has faded into footballing obscurity.