MOSCOW — Of all the possibilities of all the nights on all the dates in all the places in all the rambunctious Earth, not many have matched Sunday, July 12, 1998, on the Champs Elysees in Paris. To stomp down the boulevard that night was to gain some fresh knowledge of human physiology: Goose bumps really can recur for six hours running.
With a World Cup title both unprecedented and unexpected, it seemed the French had floated away from their halfheartedness about sports, however fallacious that premise. Fathers carried toddlers outdoors to look, hoping something might fasten itself to memory. People sang about being les champions with such repetition that the ear could have tired of it by 4 a.m. (or sooner). Crowds near the Arc de Triomphe thickened to the scary degree that can cause leaving one’s feet involuntarily.
For percussion purposes, Brazilian fans brought drums to help out, which retold of the glory of Brazilians, given that Brazil itself had just gotten upset and plunked, 3-0, in the World Cup final on the northern edge of the great city.
“We have a culture of victory now,” French defender Lilian Thuram had said that week. The whole thing did feel newfangled, even if France had won the 1984 European Championship.
Come this Sunday night, the place to be upon the Earth will become either the Champs Elysees or the 800,000-strong capital of Zagreb, Croatia. Either there will be “4 million people out in the streets celebrating,” as Croatia Manager Zlatko Dalic hoped, indicating the entire population of Croatia, or a metropolitan area of triple that amount will see its Champs Elysees again go phantasmagorical. Yet if France’s rainbow of skill can prevail over Croatia’s soaring talent and big heart here in Luzhniki Stadium 1,500 miles northeast of the Arc de Triomphe, then, two things:
The average blood alcohol content on the Champs Elysees should prove similar to 1998.
The meaning won’t.
A World Cup title in this turbulent 2018 World Cup might have required more merit than the first. It would mean France has thrived from the hard realm of the global establishment. It would heap further impression upon the country’s knack for player development, most visible in the attacking beauty of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, midfielder Paul Pogba and the 19-year-old lad who has made this World Cup his thunder, Kylian Mbappe.
It would make it two titles in six World Cups with a third final appearance (2006) to boot, and it would paint over France’s creatively dismal World Cup failures of 2002 and 2010. It would ratify the conservative approach of Manager Didier Deschamps, who has been doubted — well, as much as it can be said French managers get doubted. It would dwarf further the eternally bizarre fact that in that 2006 final, the great French attacking midfielder Zinedine Zidane, by now a cosmopolitan manager of great repute, spent his last playing moment committing one of the world’s most renowned all-time head-butts.
It also would be slightly funny because, even after 1998, France would have wrung all this from a country whose moderate passion level does not demand the excellence mandated so huffily in Spain, England, Italy, Germany, Brazil or Argentina.
“First of all, it’s a huge pleasure and a privilege to play in such a match,” Deschamps said Saturday. “There is nothing more beautiful, nothing stronger when one is a football player.”
That measured voice of a 49-year-old came from a different era than the voice of the 29-year-old French captain and defensive midfielder also named Didier Deschamps. This same juncture 20 years ago found the French players lamenting the dreariness of their own home audience in the semifinal against Croatia.
Deschamps, then: “Two-thirds of the two grandstands were full of uptight people. When we walked out of the tunnel, we saw nothing but people in black suits and ties. It felt like a funeral.” Defender Frank Laboeuf: “They should put up a sign outside the Stade de France: ‘No suits allowed.’ It’s an offense to soccer.”
Those were the days when few thought France could beat Brazil, and Deschamps said: “Tactically we can’t match up with them, so we have to focus on our strong points — mainly, good defense. They have the best attack in this World Cup. The match will be tactical and physical, but not very spectacular.”
It proved spectacular and arguably very, given Zidane’s two goals and France’s brilliance.
By the year 2018, Argentina, Germany and others couldn’t quite figure out a way to meld their highbrow talent into highbrow performance. France could. Brazil couldn’t quite handle Belgium’s sparkling capabilities. France could. Other kingpins couldn’t quite foster a caliber of back-to-front mastery. France could. In the upturned World Cup of this Russian summer, when the old dynasties who had hogged this thing couldn’t keep themselves from toppling out (or not arriving altogether), France could. The 2-1 second-half deficit to Argentina, the gritty skill of Uruguay and the pretty calibration of Belgium . . .
France surmounted all that got flung its way so far.
“We also have this inner strength in our team and that has been with us from the beginning,” captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said.
Should they tack on a conquering of the unconquerable Croatia, which that Lloris noted “has demonstrated its values, its physical qualities, its mental qualities that are quite incredible,” France will have left quite an impression. While it plays the slight favorite 20 years after playing the decided underdog, it has left no indication of complacency, right down to the mighty Mbappe, whom Deschamps called “a clever man,” a 19-year-old not given to any damaging hubris.
“There is no euphoria here,” Deschamps said of the pre-final feeling.
Somewhere on Earth on Sunday night, there will be.
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