During World War II, my father was an American officer attached to the Free French, assigned to General Philippe Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division. As a result, in August of 1944, he was there for the liberation of Paris. It was a singular event in his life, and on the occasions when our conversation turned to the war, he would say that I couldn't possibly imagine what it was like to be in Paris that day.
I was in Paris a little more than a half century later to witness France upset Brazil 3-0 and capture that country' first-ever World Cup championship. In the wee morning hours after the game, trying to join my wife near the Place Republique, the celebratory throng engulfed me. There were a million revelers swarming down the boulevards, laughing, cheering, singing and waving the French flag. It was so densely packed that I could barely free the cell phone from my pocket to dial my dad back home in the States. I couldn't really hear him, only hoped that he could hear me. "Dad, I said, "I think I have just a glimmer of what it must have been like that night in Paris."
Would you believe me if I told you how charming the French were in victory? Unimaginable perhaps, but true, at least in my recollection. The French, so arrogant about their food, fashion and culture, had no great expectations for their World Cup football team. They greeted each advance with child-like wonder and delight. The day of the final, I dined in the garden of a Left Bank restaurant. When I had finished my main course, the proprietor swept away my plate and returned less than a minute later with an encore presentation right down to the last haricot vert . "Eat another for France," he said with a munificent smile.
If I had written at the time about nothing more than the French charm offensive, I would have been on safe ground. But I like so many of my colleagues saw symbols, metaphors, precursors and a whole lot more in this unlikely triumph. As the tournament began, the country had appeared engulfed by a collective malaise. But the affliction seemed to dissipate goal-by-goal, victory-by-victory. We envisioned France '98 as a steppingstone to a New France, a team, and, by extension, a nation that included the children of the country's postwar immigrants. The New France was One France, expansive enough to embrace its black population as well as its ethnic Arabs. And the New France inevitably sounded the death knell for the anti-immigrant, new right movement of Jean-Marie Le Pen. After all, where would France have been that evening without the great Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseilles of Algerian descent?
We do that in sports quite often, searching for larger truths. The "Miracle on Ice" was not just a brilliant hockey upset, but also a reaffirmation of American strength and faith. The U.S. victory over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup represented America’s collective embrace of strong, athletic women. Perhaps the hopes for France '98 were a reach. Nevertheless, much of it turned out to be true—at least temporarily.
But the French team that headed off to Germany '06—jeered in Paris, by fans and sportswriters alike, for its lack of creativity and scoring prowess—left behind a country not readily distinguishable from the one predating the tournament eight years before. Call it a malaise, call it anomie or even ennui, but France, as last fall’s riots showed , was once again struggling to find its collective soul. And while some of the same stars of varying hues and ethnicities—Zidane, Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram—still backboned the national team, neo-fascism was alive and all too well throughout the country.
On Sunday night in Berlin, les Bleus will once again play for the World Cup title. Its ascension seems almost as improbable as that of the team eight years ago. Throughout qualifying, the French team seemed lifeless and clueless offensively. It scored just four goals in six qualifying games against Ireland, Israel and Switzerland, surviving only thanks to an impenetrable central defense. Even with the return of Zidane and some other notable geriatrics to the fray, France seemed incapable of emerging in Germany.
Its early results just seemed to confirm that. Despite a weak draw, France stumbled through group play, managing ties against Switzerland and Tunisia before slipping into the second round with a win over Togo. But they have managed the essential World Cup trick of pacing themselves. “Maybe we started the tournament slowly,” French coach Raymond Domenech said before his squad’s semifinal match against Portugal, “but the teams who were playing well at the start of the tournament are now watching it on TV." In the last three matches, as the stakes have ratcheted up against Spain, Brazil and then Portugal, the team has found its legs and Zidane rediscovered his magical touch.
This Sunday night, some other folks may get a taste of the celebration that first my father and later I experienced on the Champs d'Elysées. Or perhaps, for the first time since 1982, the party will spill out from the Piazza Venezia. I don't pretend to know (though, if forced to pick , I would go with France 2-0). What I do know is that Sunday's final, however glorious, however many hopes and dreams ride on it, is just a game and not a harbinger of national salvation. Victory will not be a salve for any of France's incessant national wounds. Nor for Italy would it be anything more than a consolation prize—certainly nothing that will allow the nation and the world to look past the shameful scandal that reveals the rotten core of its national game. France vs. Italy is just a game. Enjoy it for that.