Last night I finally did something I've been meaning to do for the past couple of matches. I grabbed some friends and went to a local Marseille pub to watch a Euro2012 football (soccer) game. The match was between France and Sweden. Sweden had nothing to play for, and France was playing to earn an elimination match against the beatable Italians instead of the titan Spanish.
Arriving about 20 minutes before the start, we found the pub packed and worked our way to standing room just below the large screen. The game began. We watch, we moaned, we groaned, we got anxious, and we exhaled. But a 0-0 first half left us with little to which we could attach our collective excitement. Still, the pub remained jovial through half-time, as throughout the first half France had seemed to be the better team, though lacking a goal to show for it.
Then half number 2 began, and I watched with curious awe as the pub went through a change that caught me off-guard. I'm sure there's a stages of grief chart somewhere that could explain it, but I couldn't reconcile what I saw with my history of American sport fandom. Here's what happened:
Anxiety continued. 0-0 and if anything, the Swedes seemed reenergized in the second half. We watched, we waited. And then in the 54th minute Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Sweden's 6'5" pony-tailed striker - struck. In style. Sportscenter number 1 play style. A powerful and fluidly graceful horizontal floating scissor kick, taking a pass from the air and pounding it into the net, changed the score to 1-0, France now losing. The moment the ball went into the net, the French pub in which I stood erupted in cheers and clapping. How could this be?!?
I asked a friend nearby why the Frenchmen, fans of French soccer, were cheering the goal of the opponents. "Did you see that goal?" he asked, "It was beautiful. We are showing our appreciation of the skill." Ok, I guess I can buy that. Still, I was shocked by the sudden and immediate reaction which seemed devoid of laments.
Down 0-1, we continued to watch, but things did not get better for the French. Shots sailed wide and high. Passes were picked off. Charges resulted in confusion and congestion.
Groans resumed in the bar, but seemed accompanied by laughter.
Needing a goal or two with time winding down, France substituted in more attackers, but to little effect. Then in the 90th minute, Sweden struck again. Again, the bar erupted in cheers. Down 0-2 and we're cheering? This time I wasn't going to buy the connoisseur explanation. The second Swede goal was not especially impressive. A shot bounced off the crossbar and sent the goalie searching, then the rebound was kicked into a loosely guarded goal. Not spectacular, and yet we applauded. Thinking through the limited history I know of the French people, a cycle of cynicism came to mind. The crowd had clearly given up on their team, these were the cheers of cynics.
But we weren't done. Stoppage time went on for 4 minutes, and I saw the French crowd degrade to yet another level of hopelessness: fatalism. With only moments to go, when the French should have been attacking and the Swede's laying back and enjoying their victory, a Swedish pass downfield ended up at the feet of a charging striker who broke past the French defensive line and headed toward a shot. The whole pub was cheering this opposing player as he attempted the shot. The absurdity of it all was striking.
I had a hard time wrapping my American mind around what I witnessed that night. American sports fans are usually die-hard hopeful to the very end, at least in my experience. Two years ago in the World Cup, when down to Algeria and facing elimination from group play with mere minutes to go, we all held our breath and hoped. Even after the 90th minute had passed Landon Donovan scored a goal which moved team USA to first in the group. We believed to the end. Even in losing efforts we are usually hanging on until the final bell, the last out, the last possession. There's always a chance, right?
In France, before the game, we shout "Allez les Bleus!" But I rarely hear whispers of "we can do it, gotta believe!" I don't see faces covered from nerves, prayers whispered in fading moments, fingers crossed. Maybe the French really are cynical, fatalists, or simply connoisseurs of good play. Maybe I just haven't been around long enough to see a good team.
Oh well. Allez les Bleus! Beat Spain, like that's even possible...