Thursday 18 July 2019

Paul Hayward: Poignant triumph for recent history over old order on night of ancient rivalry

Thomas Müller watches his shot go past the post and Hugo Lloris. Picture Credit: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Müller watches his shot go past the post and Hugo Lloris. Picture Credit: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Anyone who says history is an irrelevant backdrop to these games should have been here to witness the intensity of Germany versus France: the world champions against the hosts, in game 50 of this sprawling tournament, with two great traditions at stake.

There has been much to commend this European Championship, but few direct clashes to bring butterflies to stomachs. Germany v Italy was one, but Germany v France was on another level, with a final against Portugal awaiting this collision of surely the two best teams in France.

Even the climate did its bit, baking this city and adding the extra clamminess that comes with great sport on hot summer nights.

The game kept its side of the bargain, too, with a penalty on the stroke of half-time and a second goal on 72 minutes for Antoine Griezmann stirring thoughts of last November's terrorist attacks in Paris.

Griezmann's sister, Maud, was pinned to the floor of the Bataclan concert hall while gunmen roamed through it, slaughtering people at will.

Read More: 'They just shot him, and I heard him land' - Antoine Griezmann's sister recalls Bataclan attack

Maud escaped and this week gave a moving interview to the New York Times about the night she descended into hell while Antoine played in a friendly against Germany at the Stade de France, which was also attacked.

Current affairs

History, or current affairs, was hardly irrelevant to the penalty kick taken by Griezmann after Bastian Schweinsteiger had handled inside Germany's penalty area. Nor was it absent when Manuel Neuer pushed a Paul Pogba cross to Griezmann to poke home his second goal.

The penalty sealed a first half in which France had started brightly, struggled with Germany's passing game and then tried to play on the counter-attack.

The disadvantages of this strategy were apparent when Olivier Giroud lumbered upfield but was beaten to the ball by Benedikt Howedes. The game was swinging against France but Schweinsteiger tipped it back in their direction with his raised hand.

The last time Germany faced a host nation they humiliated them.

The 7-1 victory over Brazil in Belo Horizonte shredded all our notions of what Brazilian football is and propelled the Mannschaft to a much tougher win over Argentina in the final.

Against an improving France side, a fresh prize glowed in the night: a European title to add to their World Cup triumph - a double achieved in the past 18 years by France and Spain.

History is not just some media obsession. It enters the thoughts of players, whether they ask it to or not. Germany had not beaten Italy in eight previous tournament encounters but they sent them packing in Bordeaux. France had not defeated Germany in a tournament since 1958.

Everything about these encounters is more vivid and anxiety-inducing: the build-up, the noise of the crowd, the look in the opponent's eye and the fear of the consequences if it all goes wrong.

So each side made their decisions early, with France electing bold, free-flowing football, with Griezmann to the fore, and Germany waiting for the challenge to abate before imposing their steady, authoritative passing style.

The France of Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Griezmann were still riding the wave of the Iceland win, hoping to surf it all the way to Paris for the final.

Read More: Antoine Griezmann is the toast of France as his brace sends Germany crashing out

But this was Germany, not Euro 2016's smallest nation, and their slower, older midfield were soon achieving mastery over the unproven local heroes.

Parts of the German media had already done a bit of softening up work. In an editorial, Sueddeutsche Zeitung told its readers that France were in desperate need of a win over Germany.

"Of course there is more at stake than football," they wrote. "France is feeling its economic weakness and it must look on enviously as the whole of Europe becomes more German.

"A victory over Germany would be far more than a game won. It would be an act of liberation."

You can imagine how patronised France will have felt by that. They needed no external prompting.

The second half commenced with a heaven-sent pass from Pogba to Giroud, with which the Arsenal centre-forward could achieve nothing.

It was hard not to wonder how much more bother France would have given Germany's defence with the speed of Karim Benzema than the laboured running of Giroud.

Benzema's absence, for reasons too complicated to recite here, has been a big loss for France, though they have disguised it through team spirit and industry. With such a talented midfield, they need a No 9 capable of running past defenders, but have mostly had to settle for brute force.

Griezmann, though, was inspired.

Germany, on the other hand, needed something special from Thomas Müller, entrusted with the centre-forward's jersey, but goalless to this point.

Muller had said before kick-off: "I am not all about goals. They are the paint job on my car that make things look good on the outside. My main desire is to win, to achieve great things with the Mannschaft."

The paint job on his car? Germany needed goals, not clever imagery, especially after Griezmann scored his second and again brought memories from the November attacks creeping back. History was here all, right.

Recent history, most of all.

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