UNDER a starless sky, death by a single cut then. The end had a larcenous feel. A goal in extra-time that should never have stood. A French captain, literally, with guilt on his hands. ‘La Marseillaise’ being sung by empty voices.
True, pressure had become relentless as sea washing over shingle. Anelka might have had a penalty not long before, but Mr Hansson saw too much art in the dive. Then Govou’s ‘goal’ was denied for offside.
And yet it felt shocking that a country’s dream could perish so fraudulently. Short of tucking the ball up his jersey, Thierry Henry couldn’t have been more openly tactile in possession before flicking to William Gallas for the kill shot.
In rugby, a TV umpire would have saved us. But FIFA doesn’t go that road and, for that, they will be truly thankful. Today in Paris, the French Federation will unveil their World Cup jersey. Big business works on smart gambling.
Giovanni Trapattoni watched it slip away, hands in pockets, the wisdom of his years planting a philosophical expression where you could have forgiven horror. The fireworks erupted and Richard Dunne sat on the turf, chatting to Henry as if the stadium might be a riverbank, the fish slow to bite.
What could he say? “Plus ca change” maybe. Paris just has a way of making you feel down on your luck. They dress better than us here. Their language is an endless love letter. The buildings all but sigh at their own beauty. It’s as if even the poor are schooled in couture. They don’t even get our fetish for nylon replicas.
Their men prefer espressos to beer. Their women use subtlety to shock. Heaven help us, they impart a silent grace to even the most mundane small-print of a life. Maybe that was the real difficulty last night. Overcoming epic psychological odds. Convincing yourself that French insouciance would be their downfall. That we might somehow pitch their insufferably glamorous team into a dramatic meltdown.
On a stroll through Montparnasse Cemetry yesterday morning, we came upon a few Irish surnames.
Lying near to Sartre was a man called Guigan. Close to de Maupassant lay a Davy. The names read starkly in the Paris stone, like those of soldiers lost in battle far from home.
And it was too easy to imagine that, up in the hard-pressed suburb of Saint Denis, others would soon follow. Sure, we held up little torches of hope. We juggled hopeful theories about how frustration might key an obstreperous crowd to the highest tension.
But Irish order and energy to conquer a city that makes us see Worzel Gummidge in every mirror? It couldn’t happen. Could it?
Les Bleus even dressed for glory. The Irish were out in tracksuits, studying the grass, when Thierry and friends flashed across the giant screen, disembarking in shiny, charcoal suits. They looked like they were headed to dinner with the Sarkozys. And that’s pretty much how they like to play. With a poise that is formal and slightly ceremonial. A rhythm that draws roars of ‘Allez les Bleus’ down from the rafters like matador cries.
But there was a weight on the national chest here. A worry. The game didn’t unravel to any plan. The flow of it was random. Every Ireland attack filched a little noise from the night. You could almost hear them ticking.
Doyle and Keane had already gone close when, 33 minutes in, Duff swept down the left, rolled a virtual lawn-bowl back to the captain and – suddenly – Robbie was blowing kisses. What had, hithero, been mild discomfort for the French now boiled up into consternation.
Suddenly, everything was possible. And the goal had been a natural punctuation on the story. Something you almost sensed coming. Ireland weren’t just doing the rudiments we expect of them, working furiously, compressing the pitch, keeping honest. Some of their football had a purpose and clarity that was musical.
Danger, naturally, never disappeared. O’Shea made a wonderful interception as Anelka made his maiden voyage into the Irish box and, soon after, Gignac tripped over his shoes when a deflection plopped at his feet within range of the Irish goal. The half ended with a venomous Whelan freekick caroming off the French wall to blood-curdling shrieks that could have drawn shivers from the gargoyles of Notre Dame. This was extraordinary.
Raymond Domenech waited for his captain by the mouth of the tunnel, clasping his coat like a man expecting to leave in a hurry. Henry disregarded his manager’s gaze, walking haughtily by.
The game now hung deliciously, of course, implausible thoughts beginning to thicken. Another Irish goal would surely blow the fuses. No change and we faced penalties. O’Shea almost scored just after the resumption; Duff then had a penalty call rejected. Everywhere you looked, French faces were glazed with fear.
Their confusion blazed across the night on 57 minutes with Gignac’s departure (jeers) to facilitate Govou’s arrival (jeers).
Chances were piling up now like crockery in a sink. A wonderful Irish move put Duff through, but Lloris saved.
Seconds later, O’Shea denied Henry at the other end. No rhyme or reason to the flow of it. No refuge for tight nerves.
Every blue shirt seemed to be targeted in a pincered movement. Doyle chased after players like a fox going after lemming. At one point, when the ball fell to Gourcuff he had the Wolves striker in his shadow.
When the Bordeaux playmaker found Lassana Diarra, there, snapping at Diarra’s heels was Doyle again. Lawrence got Robbie in on 73 minutes for what would have been the kill, but the captain over-ran, having slipped the reach of Lloris.
With 10 minutes of normal time remaining, Duff and Keane came to the dug-out for water and wisdom from Trapattoni. Duff clapped his hands. Keane rolled his neck muscles. The body language of believers. Trap just grinned.
On 87 minutes, Malouda replaced Gourcuff and the giant screen panned to Benzema nibbling the collar of his track-suit. More groans and jeers. A mutinous ripple. The night still hid its secrets.
When pride abates, the defeat will untap a torrent of familiar sounds. Odes to Andy Reid; homilies to Lee Carsley; dissertations on the blind spots of Trap. The usual pieties. But what were we watching here in this mesmeric saucer on the tip of Paris?
We were watching a refined, technical team eventually outsmart an utterly heroic one. A fulfillment of the natural order.
‘Que Sera Sera’ sang the Irish fans as extra-time commenced. They understood there could be no recrimination now. Just pride and salty tears.