Les Verts and French Socceire

If we do not qualify from this group, it would be a catastrophe." So erupted one of the guests on Eugène Saccomano's boisterous though unique Monday evening football show on LCI cable, "On refait le match". The draw for the 2006 World Cup qualifiers had just been announced and this gutterance was propelled by France's unease with itself after its embarrassing exit from Euro 2004. The match nul against the Irish on 9th October would only deepen their angst. '98 is dead and gone, Zizou too (as a Blue), the French team has flopped (more than once), and the nation is in post-mondial depression.

But this particular guest betrayed an innate chauvinism. In a quiet conversation, he would probably concede that France's new qualifying group was tough, unlike the one for Euro 2004, with Ireland in particular, but also the Swiss and Israelis, to get past.

But hot studio lights do not favour ease of thought. Panic boomed, like a plank. Saccomano's other guests were at each other's throats, and this guy's tricolor tripe just gushed out. Roughly translated, his spew meant "Back off, Petit Paddy! Zee France sans Zidane must prevail." Forget the other group teams. Forget France's crashing out of Portugal and being sent packing from Asia. Forget Ireland's own good World Cup record. Forget also that the French, who have not qualified for the World Cup other than by right since 1986, have it all to prove. Forget the facts.

France would beat Ireland, naturellement. Oh, and the French would play the arty football, while the Irish would bog it into the stands. At least our Irish fans would outsing theirs! Merci indeed.

You see, soccer is about clichés, media-driven prejudice and stereotypes: a game of two halves, no minnows, and all that. Greece upset the order by beating them all this summer, though no one dared compare their defensive style with Italy's 1982 vintage. You can struggle against these prejudices, but will they ever change?

Predictably, Le Parisien, a daily newspaper, rashly announced that Ireland could not scare the French. With their ragbag midfield and defence, they might have asked: which French team, old or new? The French are usually good at their homework, they follow most leagues, and know who they are playing against, even if they underestimate them. But on this occasion, their navel blocked their view. Could it be that they just kept confusing Irlande with another team called Eire?

The commentators hopped from Irlande to Eire with abandon. Who's Eire anyway, you could almost hear the French living rooms asking. Do we use the term ourselves? To me, it sounds like "southern Ireland" or the "Irish republic". "From Air-ah, are ya?", London cabbies would ask.

Okay, for its economy of letters, Eire wins. But while one should not get hot under the collar over names, the team is called Ireland. How did Eire creep into French anyway? Maybe because to them, it rhymes with Verts?

Anyway, as the match drew near, doubt filled some French minds. In another memorable Saccomano showdown before the game, a guest ventured: "let's not forget, Irlande often do well in major competitions, so we mustn't underestimate..."; the rest was drowned in a headwind of panelist shrugs and flying chairs. Non, the facts must not halt destiny!

All this sifted through my head as I watched the sea green flow into Paris for the game, all 35,000 fans, percolating through the city streets, popping up in bars, erring down passageways, groups and loners, all seen a mile off in that not-so-pretty-green shirt.

Would we confound, nay, enlighten "zee critiques"? The packed stadium heaved green and blue. My mind flashed back to when we beat Holland in Dublin to qualify for 2002. Netherlands v Neanderthal is how it seemed on paper. And Ireland were down to 10 men! But Kluivert fluffed and Overmars puffed, before McAteer's winner had the Dutch feeling Ancient.

The Stade would be less heroic. The pressure was on France, and despite a few scares, the Irish dominated. The sports bible L'Equipe even pronounced the next day that Ireland's kick-and-rush game was "consigned to history". Praise indeed.

But for all the Barthez salmon leaps, the Duff volleys, Keane play and Given-it-alls, there was one cliché we did not shake: we drew! Watching with my 8-year-old son in my green-blue scarf, I was confident of victory. And when O'Shea connected with a cross late on, Barthez froze as the ball headed inside the far post. I prepared my cheer. But the ball somehow tricked, as though in a breeze, and curved just wide. O'Shea stood, we all stood, our hands on our heads in mass disbelief.

The image may return to haunt us yet, though for now, as group leaders, destiny may be more in Irish hands than in those of the French.

©R J Doyle, Paris November 2004

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