Youri Djorkaeff on winning the World Cup: “You are not touching the earth. You are flying like an angel. You’re touching the sky. Fantastic.”

In an interview during the MetroStars training camp in Bradenton, Fla. in February 2006, Djorkaeff sat down with editor Michael Lewis and talked about his career, which included France’s fabulous run during the 1998 World Cup.

Second of a three-part series

By Michael Lewis

Youri Djorkaeff admitted there’s no other feeling in the world like it.

Referee Said Belqola blew his whistle on the night of July 12, 1998 and the Le Stade de France turned into pandemonium.

France had won its first World Cup — at home — besting heavily favored Brazil and Ronaldo, 3-0.

“There’s no word,” Djorkaeff said, trying to describe that feeling but a couple of hundred players have known since the competition began in 1930. “Just a flash in my head. I have pictures of Pele, Maradona in my head winning the World Cup. Now me, too.

“It’s fantastic.

“You are not touching the earth. You are flying like an angel. You’re touching the sky. Fantastic.”

So many emotions come bubbling out.

“You’re crying, laughing,” he said.

Djorkaeff admitted he was so overcome with emotion he doesn’t remember the post-match celebrations.

“You don’t remember,” he said. “One day I was watching the final. I didn’t remember [what happened]. Watching the screen, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’

Like many players Djorkaeff had dreams of playing with the national team and in a World Cup, like his father, Jean, did in England in 1966.

But first things first. Djorkaeff had to find a first division team to develop and showcase his talents as an attacking midfielder or forward.

Djorkaeff was a key player with Grenoble in the second division, but was ready for the big time.

It took awhile for Djorkaeff to get to the first division, which delayed his entry to the national team at the ripe age of 25. By then, many European players have established themselves with their national sides.

“It’s a long time, a long time,” he said. “Because all of the time, there was no club in the First Division wanting me. My club was asking for a lot of money. I don’t know [what you do] in America, my first contract was four-five years. You can’t move until your contract is finished.”

After a short stint with Strasbourg, there were many first division suitors and Djorkaeff choose Monaco, which was coached by current Arsenal head man Arsene Wenger.

“It was a club that was not with Marseille or Paris for the media,” he said. “It was a club where Arsene gives a chance to the young players, good football good technical. I think it was a good first division team for me. In three years I arrived in the national team ready to stay and not just for one game. I think I stayed one year.”

Depending on your vantage point, Djorkaeff’s first game was a memorable or forgettable one — the 3-2 come-from-ahead loss to Israel Oct. 13, 1993. He came on as a substitute in the 85th minute.

France needed one point in its final two home matches to clinch a berth in the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Djorkaeff never got off the bench against Bulgaria, which was another fiasco, a 2-1 defeat in Paris four days later.

“It was a real, real disaster because it was a great generation of players,” he said.

“Inside the group was not really great. We fought. If we missed a good chance, it was destiny. After this big mistake [we] changed the coach and changed all of the players, most of the players.”

Aimee Jacquet was named coach, replacing Gerard Houllier, and he decided to rebuild the team with younger talent. Gone from the team were Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin and David Ginola, among others.

France was the host of the 1998 World Cup and needed a team not just to be competitive, but one that could win it all.

“The coach said, ‘We’re going to have to win the World Cup. We put everything in the World Cup to be ready for the final, not for the first game,’ ” Djorkaeff said.

The French and Michel Platini twice had come close to winning the world championship — losing out to Germany in the semifinals both times — in a controversial 4-3 extra-time defeat in Spain in 1982 and a 2-0 loss in Mexico in 1986.

Jacquet’s goal was to change the mentality of the team.

“France’s mentality was to be the best, not to win the competition,” Djorkaeff said. “But we are not prepared to win. What changed [was] most of the international players left France. We played in Italy and England and Spain. We learned how to win. When we returned to the national team, we were ready because [Zinedine] Zidane was in Juventus, I was in Inter, [Marcel] DeSailly was in Marseille, [Didier] Deschamps was in Juventus, [Thierry] Henry was trying to be in Juventus. All the players were playing in big, winning teams.

“In ’86, only Platini was playing in Italy [Juventus] on a big team.”

The media and Jacquet hardly got along. He was scrutinized and constantly criticized for seemingly every decision he made, even when the team won.

Djorkaeff said Jacquet was “attacked like a person who killed someone. It was not correct. It affected his health. The team was not that experienced. We played 30 games in a row with no defeats.”

But there were criticisms anyway.

“It should have been three-nil instead of just one-nil,” Djorakeff said of the media criticism. “The only good thing for us was that the fans were behind us.”

During those endless friendlies, Jacquet had the team play all over France, not just in Paris.

“It was a tour de France to play in Marseille, Lyon,” Djorkaeff said. “It was not just Paris. Paris is special, a special player. Then we started to travel and it was very interesting because you realize people love you. If you played in Marseille, they came to training. It was fantastic. The atmosphere in Paris was very hard. In the countryside, it was fantastic.”

The French national team took a mini Tour de France in the World Cup, playing in four stadiums (Lyon, St. Denis just outside of Paris, Marseille and Lens) before that fateful night at Le Stade de France.

Djorkaeff’s corner kick set up Zidane’s second goal of the game (the first also was off a corner) just before halftime. Emmanuel Petit tallied a late goal and the French had secured a stunning 3-0 victory in front of their supporters.

“It’s a great honor to play home,” Djorkaeff said. “It’s a great honor to wear the national team shirt. It’s a great success to win at home because really now we are like ambassadors in France and people have a lot of respect for us.”

That night — July 12, 1998 — was unlike any other night Djorkaeff has experienced.

“It was crazy. The night was crazy,” he said. “When we won the World Cup, everyone was on the coach that went from the stadium to [the team hotel]. We had the police with us. It’s a half an hour [trip]. We made three hours with the police. The hotel is in the woods, in the middle of nowhere.

“All over the road — people. Crazy. People, people. As we arrived at the parking area (at the hotel), there were 5,000 people.”

The next day, millions thronged Les Champs-Elysees for a victory parade.

“It was crazy, crazy, crazy,” Djorkaeff said. “Can you imagine people compared the event with the day of Liberation? 1945. It’s unbelievable.”

“We were embarrassed that people compared and said that because we are not warriors. We are not fighting for the country, for freedom. We are just playing soccer.”

Next: Another championship, another disaster and a trip to America


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