France’s goal is to put friendship aside

Franco-German clashes changed after the Paris attacks — but the home nation will still want to win Euro 2016

Football Soccer - France v Iceland - EURO 2016 - Quarter final - Stade De France - Paris Saint-Denis, France - 3/7/16 France's Olivier Giroud scores the fifth goal against Iceland REUTERS/Darren Staples©Reuters

Olivier Giroud scores France’s fifth goal in their quarter-final win over Iceland

It remains one of the emotional zeniths of Europe’s football history. On a hot night in Seville in 1982, a beautiful French team and a rather less beautiful West German team drew 3-3 in a World Cup semi-final before the Germans won on penalties. No French fan has forgotten the unpunished karate kick with which Germany’s keeper Toni Schumacher dispatched France’s midfielder Patrick Battiston to hospital, or Schumacher’s casual gum-chewing while Battiston lay motionless on the grass. The television presenter Georges de Caunes said that for French people of his generation, that kick evoked memories of the second world war.

Every match between great football nations is an echo of past confrontations. Thursday’s semi-final of Euro 2016 between the French hosts and the German world champions feels like a final before the final. And yet the encounter cannot match the emotions of Seville. Memories of war no longer underlie western European football matches. France-Germany has become a meeting of friends, a game rather than a chance to avenge history. So what is the significance of the Marseille match?

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For France, it will be their first encounter this tournament with a front-rank opponent. The five countries the French have faced so far have a combined total of just 36m inhabitants, or little more than half the French population. “We didn’t choose our opponents,” shrugs French midfielder Moussa Sissoko. “All the better for us that now it’s Germany.”

A key word in German football vocabulary is the Angstgegner: an opponent whom one historically fears. Germany’s own Angstgegner is Italy — the German victory in Saturday’s quarter final was historically unusual. But France’s Angstgegner is Germany. The French regularly beat their neighbour in friendlies but not in major tournaments. After France’s last defeat, in the World Cup quarter-final in 2014, their young forward Antoine Griezmann wept on the pitch. France now has an inferiority complex vis-à-vis Germany in economics, geopolitics and football. For the French, winning the Euros would provide the kind of collective joy that this troubled country craves.

But for the Germans — Europe’s most successful football nation — winning European Championships is something of a yawn. Rather, what is at stake for them here is the chance to build a dynasty unprecedented even in German football history.

Germany have won a European championship and a World Cup back to back before, in 1972 and 1974. But to equal that feat here, and then to travel to the World Cup in Russia aiming for the triple crown, would mark the current era as the best in German football history because Joachim Löw’s team do not merely win — they often win with beauty.

On paper, Thursday’s game looks finely balanced. Germany have the tighter defence: the only goal they have conceded in five matches here was a penalty against Italy. But France have the more fluent attack. Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Olivier Giroud have complementary qualities but all possess rare shooting accuracy.

The key may be Germany’s forward, Thomas Müller. The long-legged Bavarian might well thrive alone up front, with centre-forward Mario Gómez out injured. Müller describes himself as “an interpreter of space”: his runs off the ball are so imaginative that even his teammates struggle to anticipate them. Whereas in previous games he was often stuck out on the right flank, in Marseille he will be freer to roam.

The man who has already scored 10 goals at World Cups has never yet scored at the Euros, as German media keep pointing out. Müller jokes that the main point of goals is to silence journalists.

Whoever wins, expect sincere embraces between French and German players afterwards. On the night last November that jihadi terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, suicide bombers tried, unsuccessfully, to penetrate the France-Germany friendly in the Stade de France. The German players slept the night in their changing room, as it was unsafe to leave. Many French players kept them company out of solidarity. The two countries are bonded by a new shared enemy — another reason why Seville in 1982 seems a lifetime ago.

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