Yes, the European Cup of 2012 is still 21 months away, and the fact that the qualifying games are already underway seems slightly obscene: I’ve barely recovered from the drama of the World Cup, and now I’m supposed to start thinking, and, hoping about this tournament? But no matter: I’m awake. Today’s match between France and Romania, played in the Stade de France finally offered up a tiny glimmer of light. Romania has been a serious problem for France in the past years, particularly in the European Cup qualifiers and the group play in 2008. They haven’t been able to defeat France, but they’ve battled time and time again to a draw. And they are clearly France’s most serious opposition in the qualification group. So winning tonight was really important. Of course we can’t quite rule out the possibility that France will end up in some ridiculous 0-0 match, or worse, with Luxembourg or Albania: France, after all, lost it’s first qualifying game to Belarus. But between their subsequent defeat of Bosnia and tonight’s victory, they’ve secured a spot at the top of their group, and seem to be headed in a substantially different direction from the limping start to the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup.
Allez les Bleus? We shouldn’t rejoice too soon, probably. Other teams, notably Germany and the Netherlands are already coasting high at the top of their groups, with 9 points while France only has 6 because of their first loss. But then again why not rejoice, at least a little? We followers of the Bleus know it’s important to rejoice while we can.
The game was also a plebiscite on the still very young managerial moment of Laurent Blanc: absurdly so, since the guy should be given a little bit of time to climb out of the utter train wreck handed to him. But having already garnered measured praise in the last months, he was showered with it after tonight’s game. The game was won in extremis, with two goals in the last seven minutes, the first a well-played counter-attack with a remarkable pass by Alou Diarra finished with precision by Loic Remy. The other, secured literally in the last thirty seconds of the game, was a beautifully and cooly played advance. But it was won, dare I say, with panache. And the players were obviously truly delighted, relieved, and looking like they were finding their footing.
The ecstatic announcer on TF1 in the clip above declared the match a “deliverance.” Indeed, France hadn’t one in the quasi-sacred space of the Stade de France — site of it’s 1998 apotheosis — in a full year. The stadium, the commentator exuded, “is no longer cursed.” We’ll have to see about that. But you could see a tight and joyful crowd there, lots of French flags and, still and always, a smattering of Algerian ones too. On TV, meanwhile, over 8 million people watched the game: a nice number for an early qualifying match like this one. People are clearly eager for some kind of redemption.
I’m left with a sense of belief that perhaps now the tremendous pool of talent in French football, having been frittered away in recent years at the hands of a bizarre and incompetent coach and a sclerotic federation that seemed paralyzed as they watched the fortunes of the national team dissipate, can quickly be tapped to create a team that will once again be a joy to watch. Perhaps the good thing about the World Cup is that it lowered our expectations: I’m actually elated at the simple fact that today wasn’t a disaster, that I’m not driven as I was this summer to write a pained screed against French football.
As heartening for me at least was the performance of, the scorer of the first goal today, Loic Remy — the child of parents from Martinique — who along with Malouda and several other players is carrying on the venerable tradition of Antillean footballers carrying much of the French team. With Henry in retirement and Anelka in satisfied exile this tradition could have been in some danger of getting interrupted, and there are fewer players of Antillean background than there have been around in this selection, but the three who are there — Malouda, Remy, and Clichy — seemed poised to play a key role in the coming years. (Remy, now playing at Marseille, has been touted by some as the new Henry.) Dimitri Payet, born in the Indian Ocean department of Reunion, made a great shot on goal today and then, minutes later, the crucial pass back to Gourcuff that created the second goal. The return of Benzema and Nasri, of course, has also been welcome. And there a host of players whose parents immigrated to France from Africa, including the particularly key Alou Diarra. Most importanlty, Blanc seems to be doing what Domenech, for some reason, didn’t do at least since late in 2006: give the players some space to find their way, and find their way to the goal.
All this reminds me forcefully how completely odd and infinitely rejuvenating this odd game is: how many times have we been here before, holding on to the tiniest shred of promise, heedlessly rushing into a new round of games that almost inevitably lead us to disappointment?