KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- France has had little about which to smile over the past year or two. Terrorist violence reached its awful zenith that painful night last November when 129 people died and 350 were injured at multiple targets in Paris, including a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre in Paris.
This spring brought anti-government unrest to the streets. A proposal to ease working hours laws was resisted by union workers across airlines, trains, refineries and waste disposal services. Drivers queued for hours at petrol stations; rubbish piled up in the streets.
President Francois Hollande ranks as one of the most unpopular political leaders of the modern French era while the right-wing nationalism of Marine Le Pen has sparked fears throughout western European about the sinister contagion of political extremism.
Last December, when the draw for the Euro 2016 finals was undertaken one grey day in Paris, loud voices both at home and abroad were raised, questioning whether France was up to the task not merely of protecting thousands of football fans but of coping with their influx, however temporary.
Similarly those foreign fans pondered what they would find in this embattled country and whether they, indeed, could expect to feel secure.
The tournament began on June 10 and ended on July 10 with the home favourites losing the very final match by 1-0 to Portugal after extra time. It was a very flat end for the hosts who, in all the circumstances, had put on a reasonable show.
It would be stretching the truth to say that the French embraced the European finals. France was not in a psychological state to wave away all the fears and insecurities of these latter days. Official banners and posters adorned the host cities from Toulouse in the distant south-west to Lille in the Belgian-border north-east, rather out of contractual duty than delight.
However manager Didier Deschamps and his French national team did provide a welcome and positive distraction from the torments of these times; not least through the repetitive unifying ritual of gathering the nation around the thrilling positivism of La Marseillaise each time Les Bleus took to the field.
More than that, France secured their place in the final with a 2-0 win down in Marseille over Germany, in a victory woven in so many strands demanding emotional release.
France had not beaten Germany in competitive football since the 1958 World Cup’s third place play-off; three times since then the Germans had knocked them out, twice in the semi-finals and once – in Brazil two years ago – in the quarters. On top of that Germany are the World Cup holders and any opportunity to puncture a bubble of sporting superiority is enjoyable.
Deschamps and his players, notably Thursday’s two-goal match-winner Antoine Griezmann, recognised their duty to give the French people something to cheer. As it proved, that was the pinnacle of their achievement.
President Hollande had met the squad before the finals to reassure players about their safety and security. For Griezmann this had been doubly sensitive. He was one of the players centrally involved when France’s friendly match against Germany last November was abandoned after the Stade de France was targeted by the terrorists; more than that, his sister was living through, and thankfully surviving, the Bataclan horror.
Deschamps, who captained France to victory in both World Cup and then European Championship in 1998 and 2000 respectively, appreciated the wider picture of sport’s role in encouraging society to feel better about itself and even bind up some of its self-inflicted wounds.
Shortly after the final whistle in the semi-final vctory over Germany he said: “What we’ve done tonight is great and I’m delighted for the players but also to see the fervour and passion in the stands and in and around the ground.
“I know it’s a great story: French players making history by knocking out Germany in a semi-final. We have been able to generate a lot of public emotion so our people can forget their worries for some moments. There’s been, I think, a lot of happiness all over France.
“When we came out from the training centre we found so many people smiling and waving their flags for us. They were all behind us and that’s important. If they were not aware before, these players do now appeciate the reality of what they have given to the people in wearing the French national colours.”
That, possibly, was more important than the result of the final on Sunday in the Stade de France . . . even if it did not feel like it at the time.