SI.com asked several current and retired SI writers to offer reflections on the best team they ever covered as sports journalists. Here's Grant Wahl on the French national soccer team that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European championship:The man behind the hotel desk in Rotterdam got right to the point. "Did you come for a sex-and-drugs tour?"
"No sir," I said. "I'm here to write about the football." The year was 2000. My editor at Sports Illustrated had decided I should cover the final week of the European Championship in the Netherlands, and the only hotel with a vacancy happened to be on the edge of Rotterdam's red-light district. When the stern hotel manager found out I wasn't there to go on a bender, he suddenly went from having one night free to letting me stay the rest of the week.
This was a good thing, not least because I had to stay in my hotel room far more than I normally would on an assignment. My instructions were to interview French superstar Thierry Henry, a task made more difficult since 1) I didn't have a tournament credential, 2) I didn't have a cell phone, and 3) Henry wasn't speaking to any media that week. But just as things had a way of working out whenever I covered that special French soccer team, I made a few calls (including to Nike, one of Henry's sponsors), and two nights before France played Italy in the final, I got him on the phone for 30 minutes from my little room in the ramshackle hotel on the edge of the red-light district. We ended up talking about how much he loved New York City.
It wasn't always easy covering the 1998 and 2000 French team, one of only three national teams ever to hold the World Cup and Euro trophies at the same time (along with West Germany 1972-74 and Spain 2008-10). I had to bribe a tournament official with a bottle of wine before the '98 World Cup final in Paris just so I could get a pass to enter the mixed-zone for postgame interviews. And even then, that '98 French team had barely anyone who spoke English. My go-to guys ended up being Franck LeBoeuf, who was playing at Chelsea, and David Trézéguet, whose second language (like mine) was Spanish.
Yet those French teams had something special that made them memorable just to watch and be in the midst of their greatness. The biggest star, of course, was Zinédine Zidane, the playmaking wizard who controlled the game like a medium at a séance, as though only he knew the answers. But there were so many other remarkable players who found a way to achieve a finely tuned chemistry: Henry and Trézéguet, to name two, but also Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Bixente Lizarazu, Emmanuel Petit and Fabién Barthez.SI VAULT: Coup de Grace (07.20.98), by Grant Wahl
At a time when French nationalist politicians were trying to divide society using the team, these black and white and brown players responded in the best way possible: by winning all the trophies that mattered, and doing so with style. I still get chills thinking back to moments I had covering Les Bleus: Standing in the stadium at the Euro 2000 final (I hustled a ticket) and hearing the French fans start to sing Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," their theme song, as France scored the tying and winning goals in the final minutes. Listening to the players and fans sing a booming rendition of La Marseillaise before upsetting Brazil in the '98 World Cup final. And walking down the Champs Elysées at 3 a.m. that night as more than 2 million French men and women celebrated their World Cup triumph with the nation's biggest party since the Liberation.
For a wide-eyed 24-year-old sportswriter covering his first big event, it doesn't get any better than that.