Ever since their stunning win at the 1998 World Cup and subsequent permanent placement at (or near) the head of the European football table, I have found something disquieting about the pre-eminence of the French national team. I should point out at this juncture that I am a Francophile of some note. I love the country, the culture and, yes, its football. The conclusion that I have arrived at is that the biggest single reason behind the success of the French national team is that they have very little pressure put upon them – certainly much less than England places upon its team. The French may or may not be more apathetic towards their national football team than the English are towards theirs, but their apathy must surely be better for their blood pressure and may even help their team get on with the job of simply playing football, as opposed to being a twenty-four hour media circus.
We found ourselves in Toulon last Wednesday night – the night of the crucial European Championship qualifier between France and Scotland. I knew already that it would be too much to ask to find somewhere showing the match between England and Russia but, whilst Toulon is predominantly a rugby town, presumably finding a bar showing the France-Scotland match shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The match was being shown live on TF1 (a French television station which, with nightly broadcasts of “Wheel Of Fortune”, seems to have a remit falling part way between BBC1 and ITV1), but I didn’t consider this to be too much of a problem. Such was my confidence in this that I was happy to leave a pleasant bar in the town centre called “Le Carrefour” (“The Crossroads”) an hour before kick-off in order to find something to eat.
Arriving back Le Carrefour five minutes before the 8.45 kick-off time, I was, shall we say, somewhat surprised to find that they had closed for the evening. Suddenly, a quiet panic started to spread about me. The option of watching it in a hotel room was clearly a non-starter (it’s like watching a match on the television in your bedroom when you know you should be watching it in the living room), but there had to be somewhere in a town of this size showing it. We walked up to the railway station, where I had seen an Irish bar covered in various types of sports posters upon our arrival in the town. As we approached it, I could hear the dim, muted sound of a large crowd coming from a television set. I walked in through the front door of the bar, ordered a drink and… they were showing Italy-Romania in the Rugby World Cup.
Drinks consumed, we departed back towards the town centre, but bar after bar were closed. Eventually (and after a considerable amount of indignity and subsequently, I should add, soul-searching on my part) we found that the bar next to our hotel was showing it. We found it almost deserted, except for a couple of disinterested young French tourists, a pair of English travellers and three strangely quiet Scotsmen. When James McFadden’s speculative shot found the back of the French net, the Scotsmen jumped up in unison, breaking their cover. The rest of us applauded quietly – even the Frenchmen, who looked as if they couldn’t give a damn about it one way or the other. At full time, the Scots headed off in (what looked like) the direction of more exotic pleasures. The remainder of us were left to quietly ruminate on one of the greatest results in the entire history of Scottish football.
On the pitch, France had attacked non-stop after Scotland took the lead
but were guilty of trying to pass the ball into the goal. At the full-time whistle, the cameras lingered on the celebrating Scottish players (most of whom, it has to be said, looked as if they were on day release from some sort of open prison), before returning to the studio, where Arsene Wenger was asked a couple of perfunctory questions (it is something of a curiosity that M. Wenger appears considerably less articulate in his native language than he does in English). The closing credits ran, and that was it. TF1, like a large number of the French people, appeared to have simply decided that it was best to brush this result under the carpet and carry on as if nothing had happened.
There is a sizeable part of me which believes this to be an entirely healthy attitude. There was no inquest, and there were very few anguished howls coming from the French press the next morning. It was a bad day at the office, and with Scotland still having to play Ukraine, Georgia and Italy, France can still be confident of qualifying for next year’s finals. Back at Wembley, England had beaten Russia 3-0 and, although I still know nothing of their performance, I dare say that it will have been accompanied with an enormous of hubris, even though England still have an uphill battle ahead of them should they wish to cling on to Croatia’s coat-tails and make it to Switzerland and/or Austria next summer. The contrast is a pretty stark one.
(By the way, thank you Dotmund for looking after this place while I was away – I was expecting there to be shit smeared up the walls by the time I got back, but this appears to not have happened)