France celebrates victory in irreverent style

AFP, PARIS

Fri, Nov 22, 2013 - Page 20

Record unemployment, tax hikes and a deranged gunman on the loose in Paris — they were all forgotten briefly on Wednesday as France united in celebration of its soccer team’s gutsy comeback against Ukraine to clinch a place at next year’s finals in Brazil.

Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, Les Bleus became the first side to overturn a two-goal deficit in a qualifying playoff.

It was a performance and a result that was celebrated as much in Goutte d’Or, the “Little Africa” of Paris that produced man-of-the-match Mamadou Sakho, as in the National Assembly, where a debate on pension reform was briefly suspended to allow deputies to release their inner soccer player and punch the air in delight.

“Impossible n’est pas Francais [Impossible is not French],” read a banner in the national stadium.

That was to become one of the themes of the night as a wave of euphoria swept over social media and the nation buzzed from the badly needed shot to its collective self-esteem.

Jubilation was tinged with trepidation for Doria Tillier, who had rashly promised to present Wednesday evening’s forecast on Canal Plus in the nude if Franck Ribery and company managed to pull off a turnaround few pundits believed possible.

When Karim Benzema, a son of La Banlieue (literally “the suburbs,” but the sense is closer to “the ghetto” in English), knocked in France’s second goal to level the tie on aggregate, Tillier tweeted: “Shit! 2-0 to France, I’m beginning to get stressed.”

A Facebook page established with the aim of holding the former model to her pledge had attracted over 100,000 likes by late Wednesday afternoon, although there was intense speculation that she would try to wriggle out of it by appearing on a horse without a saddle — the term “a poil” meaning both naked and bareback in French.

It was an expensive night for Marc Dorcel, a hardcore France fan in more ways than one.

One of the world’s biggest producers of pornographic films, Dorcel offered free access to his online videos in the event of a French triumph. Within a minute of the final whistle his server was overwhelmed by fans eager to take him up on the promise.

French President Francois Hollande will be hoping for a similar boost to his ratings in the aftermath of a win he witnessed in person.

Currently the most unpopular French leader of modern times, Hollande said he hoped Les Bleus’ success would deliver a boost to national morale.

“There are times to be angry or worried, but today we have won and we have to savor it,” Hollande said. “At times like these, victories are especially sweet. They said the team would never get there, that it couldn’t get there — but it did and it is an example to all of us: You have to go for it, you have to believe.”

France’s media was united in concluding that Les Bleus had taken a huge step toward redeeming themselves in the eyes of a public which had turned against them in the aftermath of their disastrous appearance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where vicious infighting in the squad culminated in a player strike and a first-round exit.

“Rio, Bravo,” headlined Liberation, which reported that a solid Ukraine had been demolished by “an unleashed French side in a boiling Stade de France.”

Broadsheet Le Figaro offered a slightly grudging verdict that: “This time [French coach Didier] Deschamps got everything right.”

However, L’Equipe, the sports daily, which has regularly savaged the players in recent years, acknowledged that they had come up with the goods when it mattered most. “Respect,” read its front-page headline.

France’s biggest TV station, TF1, had particular reason to celebrate. A match audience of 13.5 million viewers was the biggest for a qualifier in 20 years and the company’s shares surged 8 percent on Wednesday morning as investors breathed a sigh of relief over its acquisition of broadcasting rights for the finals.

Not everyone was celebrating. The far-right National Front, whose founder Jean-Marie le Pen has repeatedly questioned the commitment of France’s black or Arab players, put its own spin on the triumph for a squad which — like the 1998 World Cup winning team — reflect the multicultural nature of modern France.

“It is not the racialist concept of a black, white, Arab France that saved the team yesterday evening,” the National Front said in a statement. “This victory ... is neither an exploit, nor an end it itself. It is only a start towards the team’s redemption and no one has forgotten the South African fiasco.”