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The car horns were sounding in Lille way past 1am, more than a couple of hours after the final whistle of France’s semi-final against Germany. Social media showed scenes of celebration across the country after Les Bleus’ 2-0 win sealed their place in the Euro 2016 final.
This is the fifth major final in the French national team’s history following the Euro finals of 1984 and 2000 and the World Cup finals of 1998 and 2006. By getting this far they have actually exceeded official expectations: before the tournament began French Football Federation president Noël le Graët had set the eminently sensible objective of reaching the last four (there may be a lesson there for the English FA and their ludicrous target of winning the World Cup in 2022). There were some tense moments during an absorbing encounter against the world champions in Marseille but France held their nerve.
Ecstasy was the front page headline on Friday morning’s L’Equipe. The paper called the match “unforgettable” and highlighted the fact that this was France’s first victory over Germany in a major tournament since 1958. The line that best summed up how the game had unfolded was “Germany played, France won”. It came from a post-match interview with Lucien Favre, the Swiss coach recently appointed Nice manager after nearly a decade working in German football.
There is more than a hint of their 1998 World Cup-winning predecessors about this France team. Like the 1998 vintage, they sometimes struggle to play fluent football and rarely dominate matches, but they are imbued with the same winning mentality. As captain in 1998 Didier Deschamps was part of the generation that ended France’s inferiority complex forever. For him aesthetics are not unimportant, but winning is the thing that matters most. Little wonder that with Deschamps as their manager France were able to withstand the pressure of the occasion and keep their eye on the prize.
Antoine Griezmann has been the star, but captain Hugo Lloris was also immense against Germany, producing some magnificent saves. Getting this far has been a real squad effort from France, with a couple of players expected to play virtually no part at all excelling in the semi-final: for the second game running Moussa Sissoko was immense on the right-wing, while 22-year-old centre-back Samuel Umtiti – a late call-up to the squad following an injury to Jérémy Mathieu – played with an authority and assurance that were remarkable given he made his international debut in the quarter-final against Iceland, and that explain why Barcelona are about to spend £25 million to buy him from Lyon.
The France squad spent the night in Marseille before travelling back to their Clairefontaine base 70km from Paris on Friday. Next up are Portugal in Sunday’s final. France beat Portugal in the semi-finals of the 1984 and 2000 European Championships en route to winning the trophy. Against a nation that has been something of a lucky charm for them, the hosts are hoping to make it a hat-trick of successes.
Words by James Eastham