I watched Thursday night’s game between France and Germany in a biker’s bistro on Rue de Bretagne in Paris, where one of the handlebar-mustached regulars brandished the insignia of Hell’s Angels France; where the heavily tattooed and studded wait staff wearing biker leather vests delivered cheese platters to the patriotic patrons; where the Croatian-born bartender actually growled at me when I asked for some water. It was fucking great. When the phenomenal Antoine Griezmann scored the first goal the Croatian popped some confetti, which quickly stuck to available surfaces or fell into glasses; when he scored the second one, the whole bistro chanted: “Griezmann! Griezmann! Griezmann!” And when the injured Jérôme Boateng was carried out, some of the present applauded in their schadenfreude, or whatever the French word for that pleasantly unnoble feeling is.
The applause might have seemed exceedingly cruel, unless one recalls—and some at the bistro must have—the 1982 World Cup semifinal game between West Germany and France, when the German goalie Schumacher committed a brutal foul (which the ref did not call) on the French fullback Battiston, sending him to the hospital with broken teeth, cracked ribs, and damaged vertebrae. That night in Seville, Spain, in one of the most enthralling matches I’ve ever seen, the Germans beat on penalties the great French team featuring Platini, Tigana, Giresse, and Trésor. Four years later, they beat another great French team (the reigning Euro Champions), but this time they simply smothered them, ending an era of French flair that would return only with Zidane.
All this is to say something that everyone already knows: There is a history between France and Germany, and the unfortunate Boateng provoked an expression of feelings that have accumulated over generations. He got caught up, so to speak, in a long conflict. At the same time, Boateng, who has been one of the players of the tournament, is a face of a new Germany. Not only does he not fit into the blue-eyed Rummenigge mold, but his is a generation of players who came of age after the tournament failures at the turn of the millennia, the players who have radically changed the style of German football. Watching them pass the ball around on Thursday night—practicing, shall we say, ticken-tacken—made me recall that in the ’80s the German team featured a blond beast called Hans-Peter Briegel, who had been a decathlete prior to his soccer career. The distance from Briegel to Boateng is enormous.
The distance, however, from Platini, by way of Zidane, to Griezmann is much smaller, at least according to the French media, presently busy assembling a narrative of continuity among French soccer’s great eighties, late nineties, and the present. For that continuity, a star player is required. Paul Pogba was the pre-tournament favorite, but the current leading candidate is certainly Griezmann. He had a fantastic season with Atletico Madrid, even if he missed the crucial penalty in the Champions League Final, and has been great for France, scoring six goals (from only 12 shots on goal), providing energy and guile that has driven the team past all obstacles thus far. He doesn’t quite show the mesmerizing flair of Platini or Zidane, but if the French win the Euro, Griezmann will probably be the iconic player of this generation.
If that comes to pass, his iconic status would be aided by the fact that his sister was at Le Bataclan on the night of the shooting, managing to escape. The success of the French team—and of the tournament, which, with one game left, has not been affected by terrorism—goes a long way in overcoming the national traumas of 2015. It is important that this diverse French team now stands for a nation that has been under attack. Like the 1998 team, the squad of Griezmann, Pogba, and Sissoko is a thorn in the side of the racist right-wingers, exposing as fallacious the Le Pen–ian claim that a monochromatic “French” France would be better off.
A victory on Sunday would be a victory for a better France.