Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Coupe du Monde 1998 - Demi-finale/Semifinal - France v Croatie/Croatia

Like Super Bowl tickets, the tickets for the World Cup semifinal in Saint-Denis (as well as the tickets for the quarterfinal that my brother and I attended at Giants Stadium in 1994) are souvenir tickets, to add to that sense of it having been a really big deal. I absolutely loved them, and kept them both through the years. Even now, admittedly, I take them out every now and then to simply look at them, and appreciate the fact that my brother and I managed to go to such huge events, and in consecutive World Cups, to boot! The two nations that we are citizens of hosted the World Cup tournament back-to-back, which made me feel almost like an experienced aficionado after the semifinal with Croatia!

France wore their blue (home) jerseys for the semifinal against Croatia, as well as their blue shorts, to help distinguish from Croatia's similar uniform. Croatia also had blue jerseys and white shorts, although they also have the distinctive checkered pattern on them. For this game, Croatia wore white jerseys and shorts, so as to avoid confusion with the French side.

The Game

France had momentum and the home-field advantage entering this game, although they had essentially barely escaped against both Paraguay and Italy in the first two elimination round games.

Still, they were the favorites to win against Croatia, and advance to the Final. The atmosphere prior to the game felt electric, and as the French players took to the field to warm-up, they received a loud ovation for their successful efforts thus far.

When the game began, however, neither team could take advantage of any scoring opportunities. It was an exciting game, yet it remained scoreless through the first half.

But it did not stay scoreless for very long. Capitalizing on a mistake by French defender Lilian Thuram, Davor Šuker, one of the biggest stars of the 1998 World Cup tournament, broke through to score a goal very early in the second half. For the first and only time in the tournament, the French side found themselves losing a match. It also took the air out of the Stade de France. It suddenly seemed entirely possible that the French could truly lose this game.

That, however, did not last long, either. Thuram made up for his mistake about one minute later with an impressive goal, and the Stade de France roared back to life! He then followed this up later in the half with another incredible goal, after which he dropped to his knees and made a cocky pose, acting like he was in deep contemplation of what he had just managed to do.

The French side was very close to qualifying for their first World Cup Final ever, but they still had to hold off the Croatian side for roughly twenty minutes, plus extra time. This task was made considerably harder when Laurent Blanc received a red card in the 76th minute, putting France in the dubious position of being a man down.

Croatia tried to score the equalizer, but a shorthanded French side managed to hold them off nonetheless, thus earning the victory and securing their place in the World Cup Final. At the time, it was the biggest single victory for France in the sport, although that would only last another four days, when they would go on to win the whole thing!

My Trip to France, 1998

Okay, so now at this point during the World Cup tournament 17 years ago, we are getting to the really big games. There were only three matches left, and my brother had gotten tickets to the big semifinal match that would be held in St. Denis, a suburb of Paris within walking distance of the studio apartment he had in the 18ieme arrondisement in Paris.

To be truthful, I still have no idea how he even managed to get the tickets. When he had mentioned that he was going to try and get tickets, I remember both my father and me kind of dismissing it, saying that half of France, and probably quite a few people outside of France as well, were going to try to score tickets, and that the chances of his getting tickets to such a particularly big game were next to nil. But if I was ever glad to be wrong, this was the time - especially when he said that the second ticket was mine, if I wanted it.

I had not been to France in roughly nine years. The last trip that I had taken had been in 1989, when we still had strong contact with the French side of the family. Those links were fading already by the time that I made it back to France in 1998, and what secured the reality of that trip was the amazing World Cup semifinal tickets, as well as the fact that my brother had this apartment in Paris that allowed me a place to stay for as long as I was there.

That, too, was another key question - how long would I stay. I toyed with the possibility of a few weeks, but realized that it had been nearly a decade since my last trip back in 1989, which had been a big one, since it was for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. My brother and I had spent five weeks in France during the summer of 1989, which actually made it one of the shorter trips to France that we took in the eighties. Most of those trips had been roughly eight weeks, if memory serves correctly (my brother might be able to shed some light on this).

So, I wrestled with the idea of how long I should spend there this time, and after some wrangling, dismissing two weeks out of hand as way too short, then doing the same with three weeks and even four, I decided to go with five weeks once again. Then, just before I actually got the airline tickets, I added yet another week, to make it an even six weeks. Perhaps a part of me realized that this could very well be the last such vacation of this sort in France, so I really wanted to make the most of it. To appreciate a trip to France as an adult. In 1989, I had still been young, although by the last two trips, in 1987 and 1989, I was beginning to be old enough to appreciate many things that had eluded me when younger, as a child. I was 12-years-old and 14-years-old for those trips. This time, I was a full-fledged adult. Officially, anyway.

The trip was going to last six weeks. It felt long, almost like I was a kid again. But in some sense, I still was. After all, I was transferring from Bergen Community College to Rutgers. I had worked at a place full-time while graduating Bergen, and had managed to both reduce my considerable debts, while putting money to the side, to boot. My life in the fall, when school would begin, would consist of many changes, and admittedly, a part of me was nervous about this, not entirely sure that everything would be necessarily a change for the better. So, I looked at this trip as a chance to reward myself for some of the good work that I had done, and to kind of catch my breath with an intoxicating trip, before going back to the grind - or a new grind, in any case.

My girlfriend at the time, who would be my wife officially in less than two years, said that she was going to miss me, and she was not exactly thrilled that I would be gone for so long. Still, if you can do trips like that, it is probably best, and easiest, to do them while you are still young. Later in the year, I would begin to feel a lot older, for several reasons. And by late in 1999, when I would hold the worst and most taxing, mentally exhausting job that I have ever worked, that sense of being older, of feeling my age, and glimpsing a scarier aspect of adulthood truly for the first time, would come. But that is a topic I will return to a little later.

For now, though, the excitement was building in the weeks and then days leading up to the trip. It was really so exciting to be going back to France after all of these years, and the World Cup was just the icing on the cake! Finally, the day fast was there. I remember some things about the days before. Quitting my job working security at a rich person's mall (Riverside Square Mall in Hackensack) days before leaving, and then taking a hike on an extremely hot day with my closest friend at the time the day before I was to leave.

Then, finally, the day I was leaving. I dressed appropriately for the weather we were experiencing in New Jersey, because it was very hot and humid. But I was seriously under-dressed for the rainy and cold conditions (it was 59 degrees Fahrenheit) when we landed in Paris. This did not dampen my spirits, however! I was back in France! And the flight itself had been really cool! I kept my window open almost the entire time, only closing it (partially) when asked, since I was the only one in my section apparently not sleeping. What I remember most was that it never fully got dark. There was a point when it was pretty much nighttime, yes. But even then, I could see a far off patch of daylight, more like a distant sunset or sunrise, really, and it was simply amazing. That did not last long, before it began to grow lighter and lighter, until the sunlight was bright and shining. That was when I was asked, and not too kindly, to close the window. It was annoying, because I was not trying to bother anyone. But being on a plane is a treat (for me), and how often are you up there, anyway? It is so intoxicating to look out on the clouds, and view them from above! Heavenly, really!

We went into the airport, and after passing customs, I met my brother. We took a train into Paris, and then the Metro. Before long, we reached his apartment, and talked. Maybe I took a nap, although my memory on the specifics is fading already. However, one thing was for sure: we took a walk later that day (probably in the evening), and it just felt so amazing to be back in Paris, back in France! Montmartre was very near, and the Sacre-Coeur, which I always thought to be underrated, looked stunning! We went up the hill of Montmartre, which gives out on a spectacular view of Paris, and there the City of Light was, stretched out before me! So beautiful, and it made this all feel real.

That was pretty amazing, because there was something about the trip that felt still surreal at the time. It was July 7th, and the semifinal match was set for the very next evening (not entirely sure why I cut it quite as close as that, although it turned out to be a non-factor). The sense of building anticipation and excitement was still there, and was now particularly pronounced since I was actually physically here in Paris!

Then came the day of the big game. It was slated to start quite late, at 2100, or 9 pm. I do not remember how my brother and I got to the game anymore, whether we took the Metro, or walked. But we got there quite early, which is the way that I like it, if possible. We soaked up the atmosphere and, if I recall correctly, he got his face painted to show support for France.

The game itself was exciting - probably the most exciting game that l'Equipe de France would play in that entire tournament. France won, and went on to win the whole thing four days later! I will never forget the celebrations, which for me, began with the victory over Croatia. As we were walking back to the apartment (it was a decent length walk, but we felt like stretching our legs and taking in the celebratory atmosphere of Paris at that point, rather than crowding into trains so packed that there was hardly room to breathe, let alone stand with any room).

People all over the place were going wild, except for one weird guy walking the door, who gave a strange speech, culminating in his concluding point, "Vive la Croatie, vive la Croatie!"

The way he said it was just bizarre. But again, it hardly mattered. We had watched the game, and got the result that we were looking for. There was a bit of nervous energy, knowing that Brazil, the best country in the sport, was the next opponent. Still, my brother and I got some merguez and frites, a common sidewalk vendor dish in Paris (as common as hot dog vendors in Manhattan), and just enjoying the beautiful night.

After that, there was huge anticipation for the big game between France and Brazil, to determine who would ultimately be the champion. For their part in the consolation third place match, Croatia defeated Netherlands, to place a solid third - easily the best that Croatia has ever placed in the World Cup. I was happy for them. But what everyone in France, myself included, really wanted was for France to win.

Before the big game, however, the Three Tenors conducted a free concert at the Champs-de-Mars, and we went to that, as well. It was cool, although there was, predictably, a crush of people. Just as predictably, a lot of the people there were loud and annoying, completely lacking courtesy to fellow concert goers. Still, it felt like an enormous privilege to be there, and I still enjoy the memory. For me, it was all part of the World Cup experience.

That was on July 10th. Two days later, finally, came the big final match. I will go into more detailed descriptions of the actual game when I write the blog entry about it. But of course, France won, 3-0, and my brother and I watched on the small television in his studio apartment. It really was an amazing feeling, and we went out onto the streets to celebrate! The atmosphere was unlike anything else that I have experienced. Roads were unofficially closed everywhere due to the crush of people. Cars were honking (a sort of rhythmic honk that you often hear in soccer/football), people kicking a soccer ball all over the place. These balls were hitting cars, and the drivers did not mind! Some people climbed light poles and statues in public squares! The going was slow, because of the volume of people, but we kept walking through it, taking it all in, enjoying this unique moment in France's history. The last time Paris had seen anything like this was for the Liberation, and that had been over half a century earlier!

My only two regrets about that night were that I did not have a camera or camcorder (or better, both!) to capture some of these incredible scenes. And perhaps even more strongly, I regret not having stayed up even later to celebrate until daylight rose up. Some people were still celebrating by around 7 am, when the working day began. It was just unbelievable! Unforgettable! I still feel amazed to have witnessed and experienced such a thing all of these years later!

France had won an incredible championship just two days before it celebrated Bastille Day, which is the equivalent to the Fourth of July (or Independence Day) in the United States, or Canada Day in, you guessed it, Canada. So, there was even more celebrating two nights later, and we took in the fireworks from the hill of Montmartre. It was great! Jean Michel-Jarre, a great and innovative French musician, was putting on yet another free show at the Champs-de-Mars, and I admittedly regret not having gone to see this, although it is a moot point now.

That was my first week back in France, and it was one of the most memorable weeks of my life, filled with unbelievable and unforgettable moments and memories, for the nation and for me, personally. What an incredible week! I am still so appreciative to have experienced it, and thinking of it still tends to make me smile.

After that, things began to settle down a bit. I was still joyous to be in France, and had plenty of free time to really enjoy it. But the intoxicating celebratory spirit surely could not last forever, and maybe a couple of days after Bastille Day, the country began to settle back down a bit into a more normal routine.

I began to see some family members, and that was enjoyable. Began to see some sites that were familiar, but which I had not seen in a long time, after all.

Much of the time, it was just me exploring. After all, again, my brother worked, while I had every day free. It was also mostly spent in solitude, alone with my thoughts. This never bothered me at all, really, and in fact, I rather enjoy solitude often times.

For the first time later that year, I would begin to feel my age (despite how young I still was) when I first went to Rutgers. I was still only 23 (for a few more weeks, anyway, since my birthday was in early October), but I somehow felt way older than a lot of these other kids, because that is what they seemed like to me - kids. They seemed impossibly young, and my looking older than my actual age only enhanced the sense of feeling older. But perhaps the first seeds of that feeling of being older came during the trip to France. It would prove to be the first time that I would shave my head (though obviously not my last), and for those six weeks, for the most part, I kept to myself. My French is far from perfect, and I am not fluent. I understand far more than I can communicate, probably due to being self-conscious when I do try to speak, for fear of making mistakes. Also, by nature, there is a natural inclination towards shyness, and I am far from being Mr. Party Guy.

In fact, in keeping with that theme of keeping to myself, some of my very favorite memories from the trip came during the last few weeks, when money was running short, and limited my options for activities. But I was in Paris, and would not let that go to waste. As I already had purchased a weekly pass for the Paris Metro and was able to go wherever I wanted within city limits (as well as some suburbs), I mostly kept going to some of my favorite gardens, which kind of became favored haunts for the time being, if you will. My brother did not have the flexibility that I had, since he had a job to work. And although this meant that I was alone for many of these days, I did not mind, taking some books with me (Stephen King books, as well as Lord of the Ring, and some others that likely are slipping my mind at the moment). It was so pleasant for those few weeks to go to these gardens and spend the day there. I would walk around and take in the tranquil atmosphere, and admire the beauty of the gardens (the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Jardins des Tuileries were my favorites). Then, I would pick a good seat, and read for a bit, every now and then looking up to take in the view, and admire the lush, beautiful surroundings.

Very nice memories, and very few regrets. One, admittedly, was not going to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to watch the end of the Tour de France in person. But most of the regrets are few and far between for that trip. Overall, I enjoyed almost everything about it, and remember almost only good things. For that, I remain very grateful.

I am sure that there are more memories that are not immediately coming to mind, and maybe I will return to this blog entry and add some more memories if and when they come. But I was just reminded that this blog entry was supposed to be about the Croatia v. France game in 1998, and I kind of went off there a bit, discussing my long and very memorable vacation in France, the first since 1989. That had been for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, and this time, I was there for the World Cup, and saw a celebration like no other when the host country won it's first ever World Cup title! Two years later, I would be in Paris again for the year 2000, on my honeymoon, although I regretted not having been there for the New Year's Day celebrations, which were truly amazing in Paris that year!

France v. Croatie - Demi-finale - Coupe du monde 1998
8 juillet 1998 - Coupe du Monde - Stade Félix-Bollaert (Lens)

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