Their erratic record had been typified by reaching the semi finals of both tournaments in the 80s, then failing to qualify for the first two of the 90s.
Qualification was automatic this time as hosts, and they had a decent team as well, solid in defence and inspired by the artistry of Zinedine Zidane in midfield.
Zidane’s sending off against Saudi Arabia saw him suspended for two matches, but he was back in time for the quarter final shoot-out win over Italy, who thus went out on penalties for the third World Cup in a row.
Meanwhile Croatia stunned Germany 3-0 in the last eight, and took the lead against France in the semi final, before defender Lilian Thuram scored twice to take the hosts into their first ever World Cup final. These were the only two goals Thuram scored in an international career of 142 matches.
Brazil had gone in as big favourites to retain their title, but had to work hard to see off Denmark 3-2 in a thrilling quarter final, then beat the Dutch on penalties after Patrick Kluivert’s goal in the 87th minute had taken them to extra time.
The final between hosts and holders kicked off in bizarre circumstances, with Brazil’s star Ronaldo being left out of the team, apparently because of illness, only to be re-instated amid rumours of commercial influence.
Zidane scored twice in the first half, and France then held on strongly before Emmanuel Petit wrapped up an extraordinary 3-0 win right at the end, sparking days of extraordinary celebrations among an estimated 1 million fans on the Champs Elysees.
This was the first World Cup to use the current 32 team format.