PARIS – Much of the discourse ahead of the opening match of the 2016 European Championship had centred on the civil unrest in France – with transport workers among those to stage walkouts on the eve of the tournament. But with one sweet swing of his left peg, Dimitri Payet ensured there was only one strike on people’s minds on Friday night.
It was a goal to savour and as it flew into the top corner of Ciprian Tatarusanu’s goal, Paris erupted; in front of the Eiffel Tower, where thousands gathered to watch the game on the Champ de Mars, a sea of Bleu moved up and down in unison.
Over in the Quartier Bastille district of Paris, people poured out of bars and restaurants onto the streets after the game, the bustling Rue de Lappe a mass of delighted drinkers.
Those who hadn’t been fortunate enough to get tickets to the Stade de France still sported their colours; Tricolores adorned many a cheek, though some dubious dabbing of facepaint made it appear that support for Luxembourg, Netherlands and Serbia had hit new heights in the capital.
I approached one such decorated fan, keen to further gauge the French feeling. “Parlez vous Anglais,” I ventured. “Sorry, I don’t speak a word of French,” the guy replied, his Les Bleus shirt and French flag belying a strong American accent. Despite being born in California, Paul still considered himself a passionate supporter of his paternal homeland, though his blank look when the name of Eric Cantona was mentioned made me seriously doubt that assertion.
Paul soon departed to continue his revelry, joining the throngs of people toasting French success long into the night. Having the host nation compete in the opening match of a tournament, particularly when on a Friday night, makes a whole lot of sense for the sake of post-match atmosphere. It will be interesting to see if a win over Albania is celebrated quite so vociferously on a Wednesday night.
Didier Deschamps, his players and the French public now have five days to let victory soak in but the result has of course not magically alleviated the social issues still facing the country. Parisians woke up not to the sweet smell of success but the stale stench of stagnating rubbish, the city’s refuse collectors – rather aptly – refusing to clear the mounting piles of litter on most streets.
Still, the defeat of Romania has definitely brought with it an immediate wave of optimism. There is a hope that, as in 1998 when Zinedine Zidane & Co lifted the World Cup, football can be a unifying force for France – or a placatory one at least.
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