I was in France the night that the French football team faced lowly Togo in its final group-stage game. France had started the tournament poorly, and needed to beat Togo by at least two goals to qualify for the knockout round. Zidane had been suspended for the match, Henry was struggling, team morale appeared to be non-existent, and according to a poll in the French sports daily, L'Equipe, the nation had little faith that its band of squabbling has-been footballers could manage even one goal against Togo, let alone two.
On the night of the match, I had dinner at the home of a French family in a beautiful hillside neighborhood of Angers, a small city two hours south-west of Paris. There was no television in the house, but occasionally (for my sake more than his own), my host, a charming but somewhat mysterious ghost writer named Jan, would turn on the radio to see how things were progressing avec les Bleus. For a long time it was 0-0. We were sitting out on a patio, enjoying a fine summer evening, and from the neighboring houses on the other side of an ancient garden wall we could hear occasional shouts of joy or agony -- it was hard to tell which, and plainly Jan didn't care much one way or the other. But eventually the shouts got louder, Jan turned on the radio again, and it was clear the news was good: France had got its two goals and scraped into the next round by winning second place in its group.
It was then that Jan mentioned casually that France's victory was very bad news for Spain, which had come out top in its group, and (unlike the French) had done so in considerable style. At this point, the Spanish were deemed second only to Argentina in the quality of their play. The team was young, bold, and bursting with energy and ideas. Moreover, in the figure of young Cesc Fabregas, the brilliant Arsenal midfielder who had thoroughly outplayed Zidane in Arsenal's victory over Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League only a couple of months earlier, the Spanish had the perfect antidote to Zizou's midfield dominance -- a younger, hungrier version of the great man himself. In fact, at 18, he was young enough to be his son.
But my host didn't see it that that way. "You see," he told me, "the Spanish assumed all along that France would win its group as well, in which case they wouldn't have had to play them, which they didn't want to do, because France always beats Spain." Now Spain, confident though it might be, would have to face down its historic nemesis because the French had only managed to come in second. Jan, who didn't give a damn about football, took it for granted that France would beat Spain simply because it always did, as surely as Brazil always beats England.
Another country that didn't want to play France was mighty Brazil. In L'Equipe, Brazil's egomaniacal left-back, Roberto Carlos, had predicted breezily that Spain would beat France, after which Brazil would beat Spain in the semi-finals. In the meantime (he claimed) Argentina would beat Germany in the quarters and Italy in the semis, setting up an all-Latin American final. Notably, Carlos didn't predict that Brazil would actually beat Argentina, because, like France in recent years, Argentina has historically played the role of Brazil's nemesis.
But Spain didn't beat France, and, in confronting Brazil, the French showed once again they had the Samba Kings' number. France has a footballing nemesis of its own, of course, in neighboring Germany, but fortunately for them, Italy disposed of the host nation in the semis. (Italy has long been Germany's nemesis.) Now France and Italy line up in a final together for the first time since France beat Italy 2-1 six years ago in the final of the 2000 European Championship. France has been the more successful team of late, but, in footballing terms, only the Italians can be considered true royalty. The French have won the World Cup once, and like England, were only able to do so when playing at home. As three-time winners, (and twice runners-up) Italy may not qualify as France's nemesis, but historically they are in a different category. Younger, fresher, and scoring superb goals from open play, they are likely to reassert their superiority on Sunday.
-- Brendan Bernhard
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