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French Fans Strike Out for Soccer

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 12, 1998; Page D1


PARIS — Before the World Cup, Jennifer Simic, 21, had rarely watched soccer. But the success of the French national team, which plays Brazil for the championship Sunday night, has turned her into a fan.

Not just a regular fan, but a super-enthusiast. Wearing a blue France hat, Simic and her similarly blue-hatted boyfriend, Francis Renault, were soaking up the atmosphere amidst the crowds on the Champs-Elysées Saturday afternoon. Simic gave a little fist-wave.

"We have to win!" she said, loudly by discreet French standards. "Our team gets better every day. I love the emotion, I love the suspense. . . . Almost all my girlfriends, even the ones who didn't like soccer before, are very enthusiastic for the French team."

France is in the throes of a mass movement rarely seen in this country of nonparticipators. The success of "Les Bleus" seems to have galvanized almost the entire country. Fans who never before painted their faces, wore blue wigs or even watched soccer on television will be glued to their sets Sunday night.

The joy is a marked shift from the doubt and criticism that marked the team's debut in the World Cup a month ago. Coach Aime Jacquet was widely criticized in the media for his choices for the team and his strategy; the fans seemed largely apathetic.

But when France beat Croatia, 2-1, to advance to its first World Cup final, the largest audience in French television history turned on. A reported 24 million viewers in this country of 56 million watched the end of the game, including 8.5 million women.

And when the game was over, an estimated 350,000 screaming fans packed the Champs-Elysées. Television pictures taken from above show a near-solid mass of people stretching from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde; it was said to be the largest crowd since the 1945 liberation of Paris near the end of World War II.

"Everyone is behind the team, we've never seen anything at this level," said Fabien Henry, a 20-year-old student. "It's the last World Cup of the century, it's here in France, it's against Brazil. I'm so enthusiastic, I'm so excited."

He has reason to be. Henry and his friend Augustin le Tourneau have tickets to the game; they won the right to buy them in a lottery last fall. On the Champs-Elysées Saturday afternoon, scalpers were asking up to $2,500 for seats.

"Everyone tells me I should sell my ticket and make a fortune, but I won't," Henry said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

A huge banner proclaiming "Allez la France" (Go France) was unveiled Friday on the wall of the National Assembly by the president of the legislative body, Laurent Fabius. Fabius said the enthusiasm for the French team showed that "something is happening here." He did not say, however, why the banner was raised only after France had won six World Cup games rather than at the beginning of the tournament a month ago.

The French may be coming late to soccer-mania, but the enthusiasm is widespread. "We are all footballers," said the headline in L'Humanite, the Communist newspaper. "All France is converted to the World Cup," said Liberation. "France [is] behind its Blues," said Le Figaro.

On Saturday, President Jacques Chirac decorated Joao Havelange, outgoing president of FIFA, soccer's governing body, and took a moment to swear allegiance.

"I say to the French team, 'I'm with you.'" he said. "And the French are with you. Tomorrow night, let the Cup be with you. The Cup will be French, it is my opinion."

He may hold a minority view; even some French fans expect Les Bleus will fall to four-time champion Brazil and that life will return to normal — that is, summer vacation — later this week. A parade down the Champs-Elysées is planned for Monday to celebrate regardless of the game's outcome, and the players and Jacquet are invited to the Elysée Palace Tuesday to share Bastille Day with Chirac and several thousand guests.

"France is in love with France," wrote columnist Pierre Georges in Le Monde. "It's big news and a little surprising."

Indeed, such outbursts of enthusiasm are unusual here. The French athletes who excel in global competitions tend to do so in individual sports: bicycle racing, skiing, tennis, figure skating. Professional soccer teams average lower attendance than almost anywhere else in Europe.

France is not a country of joiners. Most schools do not offer organized sports in their programs, and parent associations raising money for teams are unheard of.

Nor do large numbers of people normally demonstrate for reasons other than strikes and protests.

"Mass movements are rare here," said fan Bernard de Goulanger, clad in a France jersey.

"Except for the [1789] Revolution," chimed in his friend, Eric de Lolme, also clad in team colors. "I guess you could say this is a sort of nice revolution."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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