Reflections on a World Cup Past: France Lose to Germany, But Future is Bright

France’s Patrick Battiston carried off the field after an infamous blow by German goalkeeper Harald Shumacher during the 1982 World Cup (Photo: AFP)

In FIFA World Cup football, history matters. Whether it was made on the playing field or not.

The international history of France playing Germany in the sport is sparse — they’ve only met four times in the World Cup — but significant. Any time two nations with such a telling recent past butt heads and cleats on a playing field, there’s going to be baggage, ferocious battles, and some sore losing.

It’s only too easy for a match de football to become a metaphor for animosities between the countries themselves. There might be talk of how past conflicts are forgiven and forgotten, but there is an undeniable mental aspect to a game between these particular nations, only a few decades removed from two world wars. More recently still was an incident designated by many as the worst tackle ever seen in international football play.

But first off, let’s talk about this World Cup. The European football powerhouses had impressed time and time again in the tournament thus far — and fate put their paths to a 2014 final at odds with each other in the quarterfinal round on Friday.

It wasn’t a match of meanness, simply sporting rivalry coming to fruition, which made for a good game. The young, inexperienced disposition of the French finally showed through in their toughest match yet; only four players on the team played in the 2010 Cup, part of a virtual overhaul of the country’s football program. Germany, its squad of steel nearly intact from four years ago, reflected the poise and the refined attack of international mainstays — although as the 1-0 result reflects, it was no dominant performance.

France’s standout striker Karim Benzema seemed to be molding a final French offensive surge with skillful footwork into a near-perfect shot, but alas, Germany’s bear of a keeper, Manuel Neuer crushed the effort to send yet another Cup game into extra time. Some have called his overall performance in goal the best of any in the tournament. (USA’s Tim Howard, hailed by Twitter as the desired successor to the post of U.S. Secretary of Defense after his record 16 saves against Belgium, has earned that crown hands down. But I’m biased.)

It’s the fourth straight Cup in which Germany have made it to the semifinals — an unprecedented feat in the event’s 84-year history. And FIFA’s number two team deserved it. Now they’ve got to push aside frustrated thoughts of the back to back third-place finishes they’ve had (easily the most agonizing place to wind up).

On the flip side, France deserve to go home with heads held high. There was no immature behavior, no public embarrassment, no serious disappointment on the part of Les Bleus. It’s a marked change from 2010 in South Africa, as anyone who has read a news story about French football since then knows well. Inexperience at this level, against teams of Germany’s caliber, however, is not a problem coaches and players can reverse overnight, and French manager Didier Deschamps knew it.

No doubt a French victory would have meant a lot, and not just for the purposes of this Cup. The first matchup between France and West Germany, in Sweden in 1958, was the story of French football legend Just “Justo” Fontaine rocketing four goals past the Germans to lead the French to a 6-3 victory. Just imagine that kind of scoring today. How times have changed.

It would be two dozen years before they met again, in Spain in 1982. It’s not a semifinal that Les Bleus remember with much enthusiasm, but it hasn’t been forgotten, 32 years later.

German goalkeeper Harald “Toni” Schumacher dealt a nasty blow to French defender Patrick Battiston in a contest for the ball, knocking out several of his teeth and injuring him badly. Schumacher didn’t get a yellow card or any penalty, and he didn’t even care to check on a motionless Battiston as he lay on the field after the tackle. Battiston later went into a coma, though he made a full recovery.

Germany won the game on penalties (fun fact: the first Cup match ever decided by PKs) and skipped on to the final against Italy, which they lost. That ill memory spurred the French to vote Schumacher into first place as the “most hated man in France” in a 1982 newspaper poll. Ahead of Adolf Hitler.

Emotions were running furiously high when the two teams played again just four years later, ironically in the same semifinal round.

That 1986 matchup against Germany produced little football fire — the Germans won easily, a 2-0 victory. And since that day nearly three decades ago, when Deutschland eliminated them for the second Cup in a row and took away their chance at revenge, La France haven’t gotten another whack at the Germans in the World Cup.

A statistic that will surprise some: after that win, Germany failed to take France down in a football match again for 26 years. It’s not like the French haven’t evened the score, by most measures. But in a World Cup context, their European neighbors continue to elude them.

While Friday’s game went off without much of a hitch, and certainly without such infamous controversy, France still have a point to prove against the Germans. They likely won’t get another chance until the UEFA European Championship in 2016.

Deschamps reiterated time and time again that France’s performance in Brazil would have no connection, no link whatsoever with the country’s previous furies and follies in the Cup. I would argue that it’s impossible to leave history entirely behind, particularly when the meeting point involves male athletes in a contact sport, where national pride is fervent and the stakes are so high.

But if France can distance themselves as much as possible from headlines of the past, it will be all the better for this new team’s promising, exciting football future.

Toujours, allez les Bleus.

 

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