Firstly: WORLD CUP! Get, mar a deir na Sasanaigh, in!
I can't deny a hint of sadness, though. I may have basically gotten over certain events (y'know, like a grown-up), but even though Ireland never quite managed to get a lead in that tie, it was close — not last-minute-equaliser-by-Macedonia close, but easily close enough to prompt reveries quickly rendered insolent by reality. Watching your national team walk out for their opening game in a World Cup is one of the most special feelings a sports fan can have: a unique mixture of joy, pride, trepidation, pessimism, optimism, giddiness. To see South Africa and Mexico line up before their game was to experience this by proxy, diluted. I figured that by the time the anthems before France-Uruguay had been sung, I'd be wrapped up in a duvet penning self-pitying blank verse in red ink.
But, in truth, once the actual football began, the weirdness sidled off to make way for the WORLD CUP! This shouldn't have been surprising: it's not like we're short on practise when it comes to watching a major tournament without Ireland's participation. But more than that — and I don't know if this is universal — though Ireland's World Cup successes remain so vivid and, dare I say, important to me, I have always been able to perceive a tournament as a whole separately from the vagaries of my team's performance. My love of the game partly arose out of Ireland's qualification tournament for Italia '90 and the subsequent good times, but also out of moments such as my first finals game (an upset, a brutal and hilarious red card, and the San Siro — what's not to love?).
I suppose what I'm trying to say is — WORLD CUP!
And it's the very Worldcupness of it all coupled with my immense maturity, my oh-so-mature maturity, that allows me to see the France team as they really are. I don't wish to make sweeping judgements based on one day's play, but France are quite possibly the most interesting team in the tournament. They drip with interesting. They are the very concept of interesting in human form.
You will be told that the game was dull, turgid, abject, nothing to text home about. You will be told wrongly. This may not be a team that "practically have the best players in the world at every position", as Patrice Evra claimed (listen here, Podge, no-one plays the Bendtner Role like Bendtner), but they do possess the ability that ought to make them one of the favourites. That such talent flounders so is grim and thrilling. One's inner aesthete may be pining for some good play, but this is almost as beguiling. One doesn't connect with it partially, but not strictly impartially either: it's the fascination of a natural phenomenon. The pleasure one takes from this is not schadenfreude: it's the beauty of decay. It's like witnessing a fruit rotting in time-lapse. Any guilt one may feel about it is soothed by remembering that France's woes, such as they are, are self-inflicted. If they can't pull together, if they can't rein in their madness so that it at least becomes good madness, then they become a specimen in a cage, a group of Big Brother contestants.
However, this would be hollow if it weren't for the suspicion that change is forever lurking. The talent is still there, and against Uruguay there were glimpses of the good it could be used for. Many's the team whose qualification was squeaky or whose finals began dodgily yet who reached the heights of there or thereabouts (eg. France, 2006). Were things to fall right, or were, Raymond, the constellations to blah blah blah, received wisdom could, shock horror, be turned upside-down. A long stay in South Africa would be tremendous fun: for the quality of football that would probably ensue; for the continuation of the unhingedness; for the possibility that the big fuck-up will merely have been postponed, not cancelled.
For that possibility is always there. And its effect is enhanced by the peeks at greatness that France reflexly grant us. Really, it's as conceivable that they could match World Champions 1998 France as it is that could match goalless 2002 France. Either way, this is spectacular.
The second-last word goes to Rafael Honigstein:
it takes an absolute genius to make so many talented players play this badly togetherThe last word goes to me. At a team meeting on Thursday, Florent Malouda and Raymond Domenech, shall we say, vigorously disagreed with one another on some matter. Who was the player who had to restrain Malouda?
William Gallas. Enough said, I trust.