The fourth in my series of articles for The Noise.
“It will be the event of the decade…” -consensus among the French on the World Cup final after winning the semi.
All the trains are speeding toward Paris this afternoon, bullet trains doubled-up and packed. Faces are already painted in long stripes: blue, white, red. Grown men and little girls are wearing capes. All opinions about sport are meaningless today. This electricity in the air wins all the arguments, French isn't needed to understand it.
We emerge from the huge train station in Paris, turn to our left and are given a full view of the Eiffel Tower, this city's towering ego, assuring us that we have arrived. The match is about to begin, the music of the pre-game show echoes through the canyons of the city.
Sales of televisions must have spiked in France over the last two weeks. Every café on every street has recently installed a new set or two, and they are rewarded tonight: every café is packed, crowds spilling into the street, enjoying the lack of open container laws. Huge cheers go up as the players of Les bleus are introduced. Chants and mob singing, in the key of “drinking-since-noon.”
One hundred and twenty minutes pass.
When you buy an airhorn, you know you want to make noise. When you buy firecrackers you expect all the explosions to be yours. And then David Trézéguet, whom you've never met, in a stadium in another country misses a penalty kick, bouncing it between the crossbar and the field like a pinball comet. In this moment, all the world passes from your sticky hands. All those Euro you spent to get this drunk, all the songs you sung.
So they're lighting the flares for a new reason, a rough reason. The streets go red and fill with smoke, echoing with the sounds of glass bottles kicked across the pavement. There are car horns because there will always be car horns. Sporadic acts of violence by skinny kids in black hoodies: a foreigner's head is smashed against a black car. Not because he's foreign, only because sometimes heartbreak inspires facebreak. There's shouting, he's bleeding in the gutter. Explosions.
In the dim of the streetlights and a swollen moon, it's difficult to tell whose roaming mob is whose: the French and the Italian flags are only different by one color, after all. Booze has rendered even the songs similar. Some French are ignoring the penalties and continuing the night as planned, which is to say, triumphant and loud. A leering drunk is swerving under Notre Dam, cigarette in his mouth, looking to set off the flare he is carrying in somebody's face, under some femme's skirt, but the wind discourages his lighter.
Did it even really happen? Could it already be over? So much excitement, those packed trains, the packed cafés, the singing…
Is the disaster of a lost championship equal to the triumph of a victory? After a loss, does everyone just shrug their drunken shoulders and say to themselves, “Ahh well, it's just a game,” when they would have been up until sunrise singing La Marseillais, the national anthem, had they won? They say that the night that France took it all in 1998, many million swarmed the streets.
All across Europe politics and football are easily mixed. Zinedine Zidane, the French team captain, has his name or face on the cover of the major newspapers everyday for the week we are in Paris. Sure, to American audiences he is introduced as “that guy who gave the header to the chest,” but in France he is a beloved national hero. He's also of Kabyle Algerian decent and a poignant symbol of a successful immigrant in a country that is grappling with racism and change, as seen in last summer's suburban riots. The overtime red card was an unglamorous end to an otherwise stellar career. Still, a cheer went up in the packed bar in the Latin Quarter as Zizou's head connected.
The morning after the Final is a bitter day in the City of Lights. Very little action, much more disbelief. The tourists don't seem to mind the national tragedy and are swarming the sights all the same. Moths weighed down by cameras, helplessly drawn to the 10,000-ton Eiffel Lightbulb.
What no one ever mentions when describing the La Tour Eiffel is just how ugly it is. Symbol of the city, sure, but it is much more attractive as a 2” keychain than as a 1085' brown monument to industrialism. It is a proof-of-concept, built for the 1889 World's Fair in celebration of the power of iron, among other things. It was nearly torn down in 1908, deemed too ugly to stand, only to be saved by the distraction of successive World Wars. If those welding robots that build cars made art, it would probably look like the Eiffel Tower. Worth seeing, sure, but also worth remembering that it is topped by a gigantic television antenna.
On the whole, Paris rides on reputation. It is still one of the great cities, but trades on what it once was more than what it is. The end of the 19th century and the halftime break between the World Wars are to Paris what the years 1950-1970 are to San Francisco. A defining moment, lingering. Still today, Paris is a good city for the arts. The city itself sponsors a poetry slam, after all. But the Paris of posters and movies, of bohemian triomphe and political cafés, all that electric hope can now only be found in some corners, down certain curved streets and in the shops that commerce has forgotten. It has been swept into alleys, away from tourist shoes.
And in that way, even on the night of football disaster, mighty Paris is a little like Flagstaff: glossy and over-sold along the tourist tracks, yet still holding a few alleys filled with street art to remind us of all that is amazing in imperfection.