I come from a family where we don’t do football. Ever. Until 1998, and the World Cup came to France, I’m not even sure I knew such an event existed. In 1998, I was 12 and I read Jane Eyre for the first time.
But the World Cup being in France that year, we got into it. My mum put up a calendar of matches on the fridge, as she does for the Olympic games. I have no memory of all the criticism around coach Aimé Jacquet or the team selection; I just know it existed because of the post World Cup coverage. Until quite far into the competition, this was just something going on in the background.
1998 was the last year my grandparents, my sister and I went on holiday to the seaside town of Brétignolles-sur-Mer. We had been visiting every summer for at least five years. Although it took my grandmother another 12 years to die, she was already diminished. My grandfather was still a giant to me.
The place they had rented was a shithole, the type you only accept to live in in cities where rent is very expensive or in resorts, where landlords know they can get away with anything since it’s for just a week.
For the duration our stay, we didn’t watch a single match (no TV) but we kept on top of the news thanks to Ouest-France, the local newspaper my grandfather was reading. Ouest-France is a West France institution, the French-speaking paper with the strongest readership, different variants depending on where you buy it and every summer, a scratch game. Or at least it did, in 1998. Ouest-France and my grandfather are linked to the extent I can’t see it without thinking of him.
Every day, sitting on the tiny patio, we were reading the news, until one day we realised Les Bleus were actually getting somewhere. At some point, I started cutting articles and keeping them. I had an obsession with archiving, aged 12.
We drove back from Brétignolles to Le Mans on 12 July, the day of the final. There were people on the side of the road wearing striped blue, white and red make-up, waving flags and honking. “We haven’t won yet” my grandfather, the man who had painted Austin Healeys in his garage for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and started the family tradition of disliking football, remarked.
Yet when we got home, just a few hours before France-Brazil kicked off, we switched the TV on. There was an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Stade de France and then the game, of which I have little memory except for being very excited when I went to brush my teeth at half-time, my grandmother refusing to watch with us and my grandfather exclaiming “that was unnecessary” when Petit scored the third goal.
Then I remember the analysts taking over; France black-blanc-beur, the idea that this victory could be the start of a new, all-encompassing French society; President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s leaps in the polls; the crowds on les Champs-Elysées around the players’ bus…
One week later we were back on the road, travelling with my parents to the Somme. In the small village where we stayed, we continued another family tradition, that of buying Paris Match for big national events. That Paris Match is still in my cupboard but really, it should join the ones we found in my great-grandparents’ house about multiple Pope deaths and the de Gaulle family. 1998 was 16 years ago.
Four years later, I was in high school. My only memory of the World Cup in Korea/Japan is joining some of my classmates at the on-campus flat of the Welsh language assistant, who was dating one of them. France left at the group stage.
2006 is another good World Cup memory. It was my first year at the London School of Economics and my friend Stacy really got me into it. She wrote a blog about the Trinidad and Tobago team and I suddenly knew who Dwight Yorke was.
I went to see the match against Sweden at a bar by the Barbican, with mostly Trinidadians and Tobagonians. The room was heavy with hope because that game was a 0-0 draw. Later, Stacy told me there had been a few heart attacks in Trinidad, during the match. Then I went to see the game against England in a bar by King’s Cross. It was so busy that Nicholai had to perch me on the bar to see. The atmosphere was very different. Stacy wrote a few articles in the FT about the team and I was very proud. Seeing your friends’ names on an FT by-line never gets old.
In the end, Trinidad and Tobago didn’t qualify but I have kept my red jersey, which I wore a few times that summer with pride, in between donning my postwoman uniform. Nobody else in Nevers had a Trinidad and Tobago football shirt. The games against Sweden and England remain the only two football matches I have ever seen on purpose in a bar.
Although mostly following Trinidad and Tobago during the group phase, I was also keeping an eye on France, if only because Stacy had written her third year IR dissertation on the politics of French football. The evening of the final against Italy, she sent me a text along the line of “good luck even though a victory would totally prove my dissertation wrong”. I kept it until I had to give up my French mobile.
The day of the final, we were in Le Mans again, for my goddaughter’s christening. My grandmother was in her cycle of hospital stays that would see her to the end of her life. I was wearing a white Kookai dress I keep forgetting I still own. When Zidane head-butted, everyone around the dinner table felt that all was lost. The following week, we bought Paris Match again, where some prize-winning novelist wrote that Zidane’s problem was hubris.
Since 2010 was another group stage World Cup exit for Les Bleus, I have little memory of it. I just remember the team refusing to disembark a bus. That day, I was meeting someone I was teaching French to, who was teaching me writing and he, like much of the British media, made fun of the French propensity for striking. My grandmother died that summer.
This year, I had hopes for another long World Cup until I heard on radio France Inter that the French squad’s aim was to reach the Quarter Finals; anything beyond would be a bonus. That’s not the spirit. François Hollande could really do with a trophy win, as could French society. But really, I am supporting Argentina because I drew them in the sweepstake at work and there is £40 at stake.