06 July 2006

On est en finale, on est en finale, on est, on est, on est en finale

Well, here we are. At the beginning of this whole affair, nobody thought France would be anywhere near the final. The 2004-2005 qualifying campaign was turning into a nightmare; although they hadn't lost a single match, France drew with Israel and Switzerland twice, and Ireland once, and were in danger of not qualifying. In the end the old guard came back and France ended up winning the group, but could just as easily been eliminated had they not won their final match. Then there were the three unimpressive friendlies in the run up to the finals against Mexico, Denmark and China, culminating in the injury that put Djibril Cissé out of the World Cup (injured Cissé is now available as an action figure; yikes!).

The World Cup itself started off badly. After the effect he had as a super-sub, or joker as they say in French, the press were demanding that Franck Ribéry be part of the starting line up. Raymond Domenech then started him in the first match against Switzerland and they didn't win. Ribéry didn't look as effective as he had done as a subsitute and even less so as the match wore on, so of course everyone said that he should only have come on as a substitute and that the manager didn't know what he was doing.

After opening with draws against Switzerland ans South Korea (although they should have beat the latter after having had a goal disallowed even though the ball clearly crossed the line), France needed to beat Togo by two goals in their final group match to be guaranteed passage into the knockout stage,and Zidane would not be able to play because of a one match suspension. Around the world, among both the press and the general public, the consensus was that the team was too old. Domenech didn't have a clue and Zidane et Cie were simply washed up. All the while, Domench answered his critics by saying he would see them on 9 July. Nobody believed him for a second. Many thought that it was a good thing that Zidane was suspended as it saved Domench from having to drop him, especially as he will retire at the end of the World Cup and they could have been eliminated after that match.

It was at this point that I realised that I was no longer a neutral watching this competition. As a Canadian, my team hasn't been in the World Cup since 1986, when I was but a lad of four, so I generally just enjoy the footie, hoping for England (English is my mother tongue and I've always been a bit of an anglophile) or France (I was educated in French, Canada's other national culture) to do something good. In this World Cup the country of my father's birth and the country of my maternal grandfather's family were also both qualified, but I don't feel the same attachment to either team. As I slipped away from work to watch the second half of France-Togo on the big screen down the street, I came to the realisation that I really wanted them to win. A couple of weeks ago on the French radio programme On va s'gêner (rss podcast), Belgian panelist Maureen Dor said that she had been back in Belgium during the France-Spain match and, despite the taunts of her incredulous compatriots, she really wanted France to win. She's been living in France for a few years now, and she suddenly had the epiphany on that matchday that she finally feels French now that she wants France to win at football. She went on to add that amidst all of the talk from hard-line French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy about citizenship tests for immigrants, all they really have to do is sit potential candidates for citizenship down in front of a football match featuring France and whatever country they've come from, and if they cheer for France they can stay. What's that you say? That's ridiculously simplistic and not particularly funny? Well, it made me laugh at the time...

In Canada,
this supposedly Commonwealth country that's really nothing more than a province of Hollywood in the parts that speak English, we have easier access to French television (and arguably French books ) than we do to books and television from Britain, and thanks to region-free DVD players, podcasting and the Internet in general, I find myself becoming more and more culturally French. This was becoming evident in my increasing cultural isolation from my generation, mainly because I haven't seen any of the Hollywood rubbish that they have, nor have I heard the latest top-40 'music' that will be the soundtrack to their summer. For all the talk of the americanisation of France, they're still holding out better than the British. Also, like a French person, from time to time I actually read books. Not Da Vinci Code because the movie was 'AWESOME!'. No, I read actual (not just French) books. Honest to God... And now to top it all off I want France to win at Football.

In the following match against Spain, even if the Spanish coach and fans hadn't been such racists, I would have still desperately wanted France to win. Even if the Spanish fans hadn't booed and whistled during La Marseillaise (also the anthem of the republicans during the Spanish Civil War) and even if the Spanish press hadn't declared they were going to send Zidane, who plays his club football in Madrid, into retirement, I would still have been four-square behind the l'escouade française. At the same time, it made it all the more enjoyable to silence Franco's fan club, these representatives of a supposedly modern country that still harbours such strong racist and anti-republican tendancies and displays them openly in the context of an international manifestation of sport and friendship. The contrast between the French and Spanish nations really was quite striking. In response to Miró's call of Aidez l'Espagne, I would say that it needs all the help it can get. Conversely, when England went out to Portugal, it didn't affect me in any significant way. I still feel a great attachment to Britain, but not, I fear, to the same extent that I now do to France. Now we're (yes, the first-person plural is wholly appropriate) in the final, and you just get the feeling we're going to go all the way.
With a repeat of the Euro 2000 final in Rotterdam in prospect, we've got a player who scored 29 goals in Italian football this season on the bench. David Trezeguet did it against Italy six years ago in Rotterdam, and could easily do it again...

There have been celebrations in Paris after each of the victories against Spain, Brazil and Portugal to rival the one held after they won the final back in 1998, and the whole country has been swept up in the spirit of optimism. After the rioting in the suburbs, the protests against the CPE and the Clearstream Affair (about which, as predicted, we have heard nothing since the beginning of the World Cup), it's a nice change of pace. It's a bit cliché to associate the state of a nation with the state of its football team, and the black-blanc-beur euphoria following the 1998 World Cup was certainly démentie by the 2002 French presidential election where nearly 20% of voters backed the far-right, and by the aforementioned riots. Nevertheless, you've got to hope that some of this rubs off on the nation as a whole. I've read La maladie allemande (The German Malady; see below) and The French Malady. With some luck the unexpected performances of both nations' football teams will contribute to higher spirits in both France and Germany, and ultimately to a relance of the European project, whose very existence depends upon the dual impulsion of both countries.

From the ironic chants of Allez les vieux of a few weeks ago, the fickle French are once again behind their sélection nationale, an entire nation in full voice.

Allez les Bleus !

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