Rio sur Seine

When Germany played Brazil in the 2002 World Cup final, who would French fans in Paris root for?

Ronaldo scores for Brazil vs Germany in the final of the 2002 World Cup.

International Stadium, Yokohama, Japan. June 30, 2002. Germany-Brazil.

World Cup 2002 was over as soon as it had begun for France: in the opening game, Senegal beat France 1-0. On paper, with three of Europe’s top scorers, with Champions League winners and arguably the best player in the world that year, France seemed unbeatable. So much for that. Although this victory alone did not guarantee France’s exit, it made clear that the team would not go far.

Senegal’s victory sent hundreds people to celebrate in the streets of Paris and notably in the 20th arrondissement where I then lived. Jingoistic French sports commentators and pundits who had scoffed at Senegal a week earlier now made a point of listing those players who’d either been trained, or been playing in France, claiming France’s defeat as a French victory of sorts. This was hijacking a somewhat more complex set of feelings: Senegalese players represented the Senegalese in their African and French homes and all of black France by proxy, so that even as you might have wanted France to win, you did not resent the outcome of the game. But Senegal lost in the quarter-finals, and soon here we were: Brazil would face Germany in the final.

On that Sunday afternoon, I crowded inside the bar at the end of the street to watch the game. Following the unspoken rules of proxy loyalty that characterize each new round of the World Cup, the bar was entirely given to Brazil. That is, until a woman ran in from the stifling heat outside, hair matted to her face, sitting down in a hurry in the one seat left in the entire place, next to me. “Have I missed anything?” she asked in a pristine French with unmistakably Germanic overtones. “No,” said a few voices, most eyes glued to the screen, a few casting side glances. Some minutes in and after ordering a beer, the woman, picking up on comments and cheers, felt like she had to ask: “We’re rooting for Germany, right?”

The silence that followed was a treasure of comic timing. “Right?,” she asked again, as all made sure they would not meet her gaze. What could I do? She was sitting next to me, and seemed genuinely curious. So I took it upon myself to explain: “Well no… Not really, no.”

“We have a history…” I said, to a thousand nods. “What?” “Seville! Schumacher! Battiston”

“What?”

Geopolitics aside, the football feud between France and Germany boils down to the grudge caused by German keeper Harald Schumacher’s infamous horror assault on Patrick Battiston in the 1982 World Cup semi-final. The French midfielder infamously left the field in a coma, with broken vertebrae and missing teeth, the referee granting Schumacher a goal kick for the effort. Four years later and just fresh from a heroic victory over Socrates’ Brazil, France lost to Germany again at the same stage of the competition. All of France’s frustration is contained in a fleeting scene that occurred in the dying moments of the game: arriving late inside Schumacher’s box only to see him smother the ball, Platini pretended to kick the prone German goalkeeper in the head. We all knew what that referred to. 1982 convinced the French that Germany owed us a resounding defeat.

“That old thing?! I barely remember. Aren’t you over it already?”

For the most part, surely, but then no, not really. We had hoped to wipe out that memory in yet another semi-final in 1998, but Germany had had the good taste of falling to Croatia first. While much of the hostility was gone, that story could still be seen “hovering over the pitch,” a lonely ghost all affected to ignore but plenty could plainly see.

“But… we’re all Europeans! Don’t we root for European teams?”

And this was it: no we don’t. Not here, not us, not now. For most of the people in the bar that afternoon, some because of lineage and others by choice, allegiances and affinities extended South and West, across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic rather than the Rhine. In the second edition of the Carnaval Tropical the following week, the greatest cheer was in reaction to a couple waving a Brazilian flag at their balcony. And so comments got a little more subdued and a bit more fair to the neighboring team. But when Ronaldo scored, the whole place erupted as if it’d been a corner of Rio. And for two hours, it was.

Further Reading

Sudan in Berlin

“Berlin isn’t Germany. Just like that website you write for—it’s really its own country.” – Mohamed Jeballa, partner in a popular Sudanese restaurant in the city.