In the summer of 1998, I was 12 years old, my family was a few months away from relocating to Marseille after a stint on the East Coast of the United States, and France won the World Cup. I don’t have the best memory in the world—I usually can’t remember what I did two weekends ago—but if the police ever need me to tell them where I was on July 12th, 1998, I can recite where I was, what I ate and what I wore:
- I was at my mum’s employer’s summer bbq,
- I was in my vegetarian phase so I stuck to salad and fruit,
- I was wearing a baggy white t-shirt, baggy shorts, a white baseball cap and one of those tacky Hawaiian flower necklaces, a concession to the company’s summer bbq theme.
Oh, and there were no televisions around, so we couldn’t catch the game live and only learnt the result on the radio on the drive back home.
It somehow ended up being the perfect storm (my age, our upcoming move, other tiny intangible things) for this team to imprint on me, a team that made the impossible look possible for years. Starting high school with kids who have followed a completely different curriculum for years? Not that easy. But neither is winning the World Cup against Brazil. Making new friends from scratch as an introverted tween after landing in a new neighbourhood? Rather difficult. But so is growing up in Marseille’s quartiers nords before going on to play for the biggest football clubs in Europe and winning a World Cup! Hit the wall in a sports race and feel like giving up? Zidane never did—that’s how he ended up with all those advertisement deals!1 And for the rather unambitious teenager that I was, those little things mattered!
Mind you, others must have had great accomplishments (sports or otherwise) in the late 90s and early 2000s but somehow they didn’t register on my radar. What was so special about that team? No idea, especially considering that I come from a family where following professional sports was never really a thing. During most of my upbringing, sports was that thing you played at recess or signed up the kids for after putting aside money for months. I followed my sister’s footsteps into trampolining, a fun sport I was never good at; in fact, it resulted in a rather badly damaged ankle and a last place finish at a local competition. But football? The closest I got to that was a weird fascination with Bernard Lama, of all people, in the mid-90s; a random Olympique de Marseille hat I mainly used to keep my hair from being all over the place when running; and being hit in the face with a ball in 3rd or 4th grade—hurts, would not recommend.
Yet I could probably write a book on the tiny ways that the 1998–2000 team and my life are interwoven. I could talk about that time my mum saw Fabien Barthez at the restaurant at the bottom of the hill where I grew up (he was playing in Marseille at the time and had a pizza named after him at that place, so not all that surprising, really). Or recite that bootleg copy of Les Yeux Dans Les Bleus I spent ages downloading off whatever p2p file sharing app I was using back then. I could even indulge in a recounting of the best TV ads that squad appeared in (I have a soft spot for that Tuc one with Emmanuel Petit being confused for Lilian Thuram). That team was something, but as we’re often forced to confront, no one is immortal and no playing career is infinite. And so the French national team moved on from that specific squad. As for me, I grew up, but maybe didn’t quite move on; I still kept an eye on what those guys were doing. It all depended on my mood, life events, the position of the moon…but often we travelled together through several phases in that post-Euro 2000 era.
First, our relationship was rather distant from 2000 to 2005 as I was busy going through a rebellious phase (mostly limited to full-on angst and some questionable fashion choices) and the team was busy not making it out of the qualifying rounds.
2006 marks another one of those moments forever branded into my memory. We were watching the final at home. It was most likely the last match for those who had been youngsters in 1998. The game went into extra time. We almost won. Zidane lost his cool again. David Trezeguet missed. The nearby houses were nearly silent except for those neighbours to the right and across the street, who were for Italy. Jerks. No respect for our mourning the end of an era. I make it all sound so dramatic and it wasn’t, really, when you think about it. It sure felt like it, though.
For the rest of the story, you need a bit of history to get the full context. As I said, I was very much an unambitious teenager but—spoiler alert—I ended up doing just fine. Finished school, got a degree, got a job, still can’t step foot on a trampoline. Most importantly, once my teenager rebellious phase concluded, I discovered that my parents were actually alright and living with them had huge advantages, thus it took me ages to first move out of the family home and then to get the guts to leave the Provence region. And leave, I did. First, up to Finland, then down to southern Spain and up to Finland again. It also took me no time to realise that moving countries by yourself as a young adult is completely different from moving countries with your family as a child! The best strategy I found to keep homesickness at bay and not board the first plane back was to keep up with things back home—from local and national politics to the weather to how the local and national sports teams were doing . . . which is how my life once again leads back to football.
In the past decade I’ve followed the French NT’s escapades because it reminds me of home, it gives me material to talk about during my weekly Skype calls and it makes it easy to join in during apéritif and dinner discussions when I come back on holiday. This is quite useful during dinners with people who have known me since I was a child; they love asking about my work and when I’m moving back home, I hate trying to explain what exactly it is I do and the state of the job market2, we find a middle ground taking apart the latest opinion pieces written in L’Équipe about disputes between the manager and the players (although Didier Deschamps’ tenure has less tumultuous than Raymond Domenech’s).
So in the end, I would say I’m what can be called a “very casual fan”. French football can be found on the periphery of my life, along with other things I have an opinion on but do not directly influence my everyday life. I follow what’s happening with a sense of detachment. It’s a bit like Eurovision; I’m always pleasantly surprised when France does well but there aren’t any negative feelings when it doesn’t. In the case of the ESC, “France does well” of course means “does not end in the bottom five and beats England”. For football that means “does not lose against the Faroe Islands”—that one game in 2009 against the Faroe Islands traumatised me; the 1-0 win does not do justice to the difficulties in that match. These not-too-high expectations is not me dissing the team or thinking the worst of the players—it’s quite the opposite. It’s my recognising that they have a tough job that’s not only taxing physically but also mentally and sometimes things don’t go well, no matter how much you train, no matter how much you plan . . . well, that and I currently do not have enough mental real estate to dedicate to negative feelings not linked to things I can actually control.
Without that control, all I can do is hope that France does well at the World Cup and that the team isn’t involved in too many scandals (full disclosure: when I started typing up this piece, I had a part about how nice it was to be so close to the World Cup and not have had any scandals, about how nice of a change it was . . . and then we had the Adrien Rabiot story and every newspaper and radio and TV news program was interviewing everyone and their grandma’s dog about whether or not he made the right choice about not showing up to training, and what example that might give to the youngsters). Statistically it seems that we have a “good” group: Australia, Peru, Denmark. We beat Australia thanks to an own goal, that was fine. On paper the squad also looks decent, while there are some big egos, it should be fine . . . and, hey, at least the manager was not sacked three days before the first game! It’s the little things that count sometimes. It’ll all be fine.
Oh, and may Zidane go on to accomplish many more great things because, even though he’s never played for OM, I’m from a completely different part of Marseille, my family is originally from a completely different part of the world and I probably would fall attempting to kick a football, this casual fandom of mine still makes me take personal pride in his success.
For those who want some more French takes on that 1998 World Cup, I highly recommend the EPO podcast (Epatant Podcast Omnisport) episode on the subject. You’ll hear that I’m not the only weirdo who remembers exactly where they were on that fateful July 12th.
1 based on a true story—almost gave up during my first long distance race but then I saw an ad with Zinédine Zidane’s face on it and I kept going, like a revelation from god except it was, ya know, Zizou.
2 My wording makes it all sound so sinister but it’s not, I’m a researcher but I just don’t really like having to explain during dinner why I think developing a usable tool based on a systems approach to help grow the bioeconomy in a sustainable manner has real potential.