June 1997 and twelve months before the World Cup was to be held in France, the French organised a mini-tournament called Le Tournoi.
Along with France, England, Italy and Brazil were invited. Each team would play each other once in a league format, with 3pts for a win and a trophy at the end for the winner.
France and Brazil kicked things off in Lyon and we were introduced to our first sight of a Roberto Carlos free-kick. The man lived off that goal for years, rarely being able to replicate it, but the threat was always there.
Then on 4th June at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, England met Italy. Both teams were in the same qualifying group for the World Cup in 1998 and had already met at Wembley where Gianfranco Zola scored the only goal of the game.
Both sides were at almost full strength, although Glenn Hoddle had brought a number of young players to give them a taste of international football and the defence contained a mixture of youth and experience. He also experimented with Graeme Le Saux on the left of midfield, a problem position for England. Arsenal’s Ian Wright got a start alongside Teddy Sheringham to have a chance to show what he could do, with Shearer on the bench.
Italy produced the first chance when Keown was beaten by Casiraghi and Di Matteo crossed for Zola, whose header went just wide.
25 minutes in and Paul Scholes picked the ball up in the centre circle, looked around him to see what was on and spotted Ian Wright making a run. So Scholes launched the ball over the Italian defence for Wright to run onto. The ball was so good that Wright didn’t need a touch to steady himself, instead he met it first time and fired it past Peruzzi and England were in front. 1-0
As half-time approached, Pearce took a throw-in on the left, just inside the Italy half. He threw it to Ince who played it back and Pearce then hit a first time pass with the outside of his left foot, over the two Italian defenders for Wright to run onto. Wright then played it square where Scholes had found himself free on the edge of the area and his first time shot thundered past Peruzzi, who didn’t move. 2-0
England were 2-0 up by half-time against Italy. They’d played some great football and what was all the more impressive was that Italy had never conceded a goal under manager Cesere Maldini and yet here they were being embarrassed by England. Italy failed to create any meaningful chances in the second half, and England could almost have got a third, but in the end this was a very pleasing start to this mini-tournament.
This was Paul Scholes first start for England and he produced the sort of performance England fans became used to, down the years.
ENGLAND: Flowers (Blackburn);Neville P (Man Utd), Keown (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Vila), Pearce (Notts Forest); Beckham (Man Utd), Ince (Inter), Scholes (Man Utd), Le Saux (Blackburn) [Neville G (Man Utd)]; Sheringham (Tottenham) [Gascoigne (Rangers)], Wright (Arsenal) [Andy Cole (Man Utd)]
GOALS: Wright (26), Scholes (43)
ITALY: Peruzzi, Ferrara (Nesta), Cannavaro, Costacurta, Di Livio (Maini); D. Baggio, Benarrivo, Albertini, Di Matteo (Fuser); Zola, Casiraghi.
England then met France in Montpellier and Alan Shearer scored the only goal of the game, just 4 minutes from time and England were now in a dominant position in the competition. Italy and Brazil then played out a thrilling, 3-3 draw, before a Romario goal gave Brazil a 1-0 win over England. France and Italy drew the final game, 2-2 and England had won Le Tournoi.
It may not have been a major international tournament, but given they had come up against 3 of the top teams in World football, England could be proud of their win. England would eventually qualify for the World Cup in France in 1998, only to go out in the Second Round to Argentina in a penalty shootout.