I was finishing my second glass of vieille prune last Sunday at Balzar, an old brasserie around the corner from the Sorbonne, sleepy from a long lunch of pig’s feet and Sancerre rouge, when the Rue des Écoles filled with a motley surge of teenagers. Some brandished flags, others wore the tricolor around their shoulders like shawls, and an alarming number of women had painted the French colors onto their faces, not just in the normal midcheek position but slashed above and below their eyes in a configuration that gave them the appearance of particularly patriotic mimes. I paid my bill and joined the parade, which surged toward St. Michel station and onto a train heading to the Stade de France, an enormous structure that resembles Saturn and all its rings in the industrial suburb of St. Denis. I had heard — we had all heard — that they would be showing the World Cup final on an enormous screen at the stadium, but the venue was shut up tight.
Which is how we all found ourselves an hour later huddled with thousands of others outside a Renault showroom on the Champs Élysées that just happened to have a few TV sets in its window. On the way, the driver of the Metro actually slowed the train between stations to announce that Zizou — France’s Zinédine Zidane — had scored a goal in the match’s first minutes. The screaming in the subway car may have been the loudest sound I have ever heard, and I’ve seen Metallica play in a small club.
On the Champs, it was hard to see the TV screens at a distance of 50 yards, but this was obviously the place to be. At least a dozen television crews worked the sidewalk, capturing reaction shots. The crowd of extravagantly dressed fans expanded to several thousand by the second half of the game, with random firecrackers and the infernal drums of an actual football match in the distance. Three random people, spotting me as an American, asked if it was true that Zidane was going to play for New York’s Red Bulls next year. In front of me, a matronly woman slipped her hand into mine and wouldn’t let go. It must be a French thing.
It’s hard to get a chant going in a stadium but perhaps easier in a crowd on a street, and we were all calling for the canonization of Zizou, death to the referees and sure hands for the goalie Barthez, but we mostly sang allez les bleus so loudly and so incessantly that a little girl in front of me threw up from the strain. When Zizou’s face filled the tiny screen, we screamed even louder. When, during the second overtime, Zizou was thrown out of the game for head-butting an Italian player in the chest, bottles of Vittel water filled the air, and the security guards inside the showroom tightened their jaws. Tucked into every shadowy corner up and down the Champs Élysées, heavily armored French riot police waited for the violence that never quite broke out.
When the French made their first penalty kicks during the game-deciding shootout, throats exploded into ecstasy, followed by hurt, stunned silence when the Italians sank their fifth kick and the French had lost. We all stood there for a minute in disbelief. And then a few teenagers ignited traffic flares. Some others fired skyrockets and roman candles over the crowd, and we staggered into the grand boulevard, limping behind men bearing enormous flags, until we reached the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs. Projected onto the arch was an enormous, Adidas-sponsored portrait of Zidane. Blown up to 80 feet, the great footballer looked like Lenin.
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Later I ran into a group of rather besieged Italians, timidly waving the red, white and green. Italians being Italians, they also waved sizable banners advertising a hairstyling salon.