When I think about it, 1998 was really a brilliant year. I had always been mildly interested in soccer, and was somewhat interested in my hometown's team Les Verts (The Greens) from Saint-Etienne. Somewhat...
Something happened in 1998 however to not only me, but all of the other French too. That year, France was hosting the World Cup. That was already a little exciting, because in addition to all the jobs it creates, it's always nice to have athletes and fans of all nationalities from across the globe converging in one's country. There's always a renewed sense of solidarity and friendship.
This said, the French team was typically not doing THAT great in a World Cup, so it kind of stayed initially under my radar.
Another reason I was only mildly focused on the World Cup at the time was because the Château of Versailles was hiring and I had interviewed for the job.
It suddenly changed for me and the rest of the country in the Quarter of Finals. We were playing Italy and I started to feel so interested that I turned the TV on to watch the game, something I had not done up to that point. The game had to go into the penalties. That's nerve-wrecking, as everything can stop in a second.
I am biting my nails when the phone rings: I pick up and it's the Château de Versailles, who informs me that I am hired. At this exact moment, France scores and wins the Quarters. I screamed of joy and to this day, I cannot tell you whether it was for the Versailles news or the World Cup.
From there on, France and I were hooked. We were SO PROUD of our players. Let me name a few: Zidane (coincidentally, his nickname, Zizou, was the same as my beloved cat), Petit, Blanc and Henry are the ones coming to my mind. Suddenly, these gentlemen became French heroes.
Something happened that summer, that to this day is engraved on my heart: the entire country supported the team. I don't remember seeing that to this degree in my whole life. It may be difficult for an American to comprehend the power of the World Cup. The closest thing you may relate to are the Olympics, but it's just not the same. Probably because there are so many various disciplines. For the rest of the world the World Cup is the Superbowl, the World Series and the Olympics combined… only bigger!
The World Cup as we had known it, for the vast majority of common people, had never really made us dream. And suddenly we had hope that France could shine and maybe, win. At home!!!
The next step was the Semi-Finals. We were playing Croatia. At this point, every bar and restaurant had their TVs on and people were gathering to watch the match. And another miracle happened! France won 2-1!
The Finals were against the Gods of Soccer: Brazil. Psychologically, that's a tough one. Ronaldo was on the Brazilian team and considered the best player in the world. But here's what was happening in France: we had at this point all rallied behind our players. There's something to be said about celebrating the underdog. The final was on July 12th, 2 days before our National Day – somewhat equivalent to the 4th of July. The only thing people were talking about, thinking about was how Zidane was doing and how we were going to be all dressed up to show our immense support.
I remember waiting for my bus at the Jardins du Luxembourg that morning when an old lady asked me what kind of make-up I was going to put on my face and told me she was gonna get dressed in Blue, White and Red, the colors of our flag.
9pm: the Final starts. There is not A SOUL in the streets of Paris. My windows are opened as July can be hot, and like most French I don't have air conditioning. All you can hear are the screams when the action heats up.
Something like 90 minutes later, the unbelievable happens: France has beaten Brazil 3-0. When we hear the final whistle, it’s like every single person in France ran into the streets. People are singing, laughing, hugging each other. We are in heaven. We all gathered on the Champs-Elysées. I have an extremely fond memory of Brazilians shaking our hands to congratulate us. I don't know if I would have had the strength to do the same had the situation been reversed.
By the time I went back home it was 3 in the morning! Two days later, it was Bastille Day and to the typical celebration of horses and marching bands and flyovers, this year was our French team, going up the Champs-Elysées in their bus.
I cannot recall a more striking moment of National pride. Now I live in the US where the World Cup is just not what it is for the rest of the world. But wait and see until you make it to the Semi-Finals (Men) and see what develops...