A few weeks ago, when I realized that I would be in Paris on the day of the World Cup soccer final, as an England fan I began to harbor totally unrealistic dreams of being there for a France-England final. Those hopes were completely mad because, while the French team has had a number of world and European successes (and magnificent failures) in the past 20 years, the English team has been consistent only in its utter incompetence.
And yet, as each well-fancied team (the reigning champions Germany; recent champions Spain and Brazil; Argentina, Portugal) played like England normally does and exited the competition one by one, France and England kept on getting through each round. England even won a penalty shoot-out, after having been the proud holders of the only award they were ever likely to hold for years: the international team with the worst record in shoot-outs. Imagine the extraordinary – and by then realistic – hope when in the semi-final England led Croatia 1-0 with only 30 minutes remaining…
In the end, the two best teams, Croatia and France, made it to the final. I have to admit that it was with a secret sense of relief that I made my way up to the 18th arrondissement to watch the game on a big screen at the apartment of some kind friends, knowing that I could enjoy the final for itself without being beset by nerves on my home country’s behalf.
And what a final it was! The highest number of goals scored in a final since 1966 (when England won the cup for the first and only time); the youngest scorer of a goal in a final (the wonderfully rapid Kylian Mbappé) since the great Pelé; the first own-goal in a final; the first use of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) in a final to award a penalty (scored with aplomb by the brilliant Antoine Griezmann); the most monumental mistake by a goalkeeper in a final (the French captain Hugo Lloris obligingly making the final minutes of the match more exciting than they might have been); and the worst hairstyles in a final – Croatia may have lost the match but they sure as hell swept the board with their appalling ’dos.
The French people do not have soccer in their souls in the way that many other nations do, but they certainly know how to throw a party when their team has won a trophy, and they manifest patriotism in a way that seems more genuine and less sinister than patriots from some other countries.
Most readers will have seen the photos of the millions of spectators on the Champs-Elysées and around the Eiffel Tower, but just as impressive was the outpouring of joy elsewhere in the streets of Paris. When those of us who had watched the match together wandered through the streets of the 18th arrondissement afterward, it was uplifting to see people of all ages and colors celebrating together.
The last time France won the World Cup, in 1998, much was made of the team’s ethnic diversity as an indicator of improved racial and social harmony, a dream that was never realized. This time, the response to the similarly diverse French team has been rather more low-key, even if particular pride has been shown at the success of players like Mbappé and Paul Pogba, who were brought up in the socially deprived banlieues (suburbs) surrounding Paris.
Other things have not changed since 1998. French President Emmanuel Macron, hoping perhaps to boost flagging poll ratings in the way that Jacques Chirac managed last time, came across as just as awkward as his predecessor when celebrating the win with the players in a torrential Moscow downpour. It didn’t help that he looked like a drowned rat next to Vladimir Putin, who, unlike Macron, had found a flunky with a large umbrella to protect him from the elements.