Two years ago, I had the opportunity to attend six Euro 2016 games in my home country. This time I went one better having witnessed seven World Cup games including two following France. Here’s my story.
A Frenchman in the Ural mountains
As a ground-hopper, the plan was to do as many grounds as possible. So I had booked three games in the country’s three biggest stadiums (the Krestovsky at St Petersburg and the two Moscow grounds) before the draw which meant I unfortunately missed our opening game against Australia in Kazan. I watched it in Moscow just before rushing off for Argentina/Iceland. Not a great watch (the France game that is, the Argie encounter was alright).
After doing those three grounds, I flew out to rural Russia. Yekaterinburg is situated 1800 kilometres east of Moscow and the last big place before Siberia. Even before taking the plane I knew I’d be very much in the minority not wearing a white/red kit but a blue one. We get on the plane, Peru fans chanting. The pilot does a perfect landing, Peru fans chanting. Their enthusiasm was hard to dislike.
Over my two weeks in Russia, Yekaterinburg was the only place where it wasn’t hot. Rain and wind were with me during all my time there but boy did it not stop me from having a wonderful experience. The place was rocking with Peruvian fans while France fans were few and far between. Wi-Fi was in weak supply during the whole trip (very few stadiums had a decent connection, out of the six only Kazan’s Wi-Fi was top-notch). I heard that there were 2000 French fans at the game.
So why were we so few? The non-existent French away-game culture on the club side explains a lot, but efforts have been made in order to follow our national team during big competitions. A few years ago, an official supporters’ club was founded called Irrésistibles Français (Irresistible Frenchmen) but there were quite a few problems with FIFA in terms of putting all the fans together so that they could make more noise. After the Australia game, quite a few French players wanted to applaud and thank the fans for coming all this way but couldn’t because a singular, big blue block of French fans lacking. The “IF” hence advised everyone to wear navy blue in Yekaterinburg but with 30,000 Peruvians, it was always going to be a tough ask.
However, I’ve been back for a couple of days now and can safely say that France is not the only European country that was outnumbered by their Latin American opponent of the day. Germany and England didn’t bring much more in their games.
Back to Luzhniki for a rubbish game
It was cold in the Ural. And windy. And I left under a big cloud. Hence began my trip back west slowly but surely. I took a 15-hour night-train to Kazan (it’s not as bad as it sounds, slept like a log; the Russians in the east are quite proud of their rail system which works really well (probably because it’s the only way to go east in the snowy winter)) to attend Poland vs Colombia (I expected many Poles, nope, outnumbered 20 to 1 by the Colombians). Great game and atmosphere. Kazan is the biggest place in Tatarstan and has its own Kremlin (wonderful just like the Moscow one). Two days later, I boarded a flight to Moscow with mixed feelings about our game with Denmark.
As Denmark had beaten Peru in the opening game, they only needed a draw to progress and we only needed a draw to finish top. 0-0 suited everyone. It would surprise no one that this was one of the worst games I ever attended. Back in the city, I enjoyed a few beers with Danes and toasted to pragmatism. They lifted their Coca-Cola glass (seriously?) without much enthusiasm and were happy to go back to doing whatever floated their boat on their smartphones (yes, World Cup attendants spend an awful lot of time on their phones). Oh well, at least we won our group, eh?
So are we going to win this thing?
So I had trouble watching the Australia because of the reflection outside, I was standing very low for the Peru game (I don’t like it, I prefer to be high up in the stands in order to see everything that’s going on) and against Denmark, well, there was nothing to see. My plane back to Paris landed at 10.30am on Saturday which gave me just about enough time to get a proper wash and head to a friend’s for the game. During the cab drive, the radio announced the starting 11. This had me thinking that it was a diamond-shaped 4-4-2 with Griezmann playing behind Mbappé and Giroud but really it was nothing as technical as this.
We played a similar formation that beat Ireland 2 years ago: 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid with Griezmann playing behind Giroud. Mbappé’s athleticism is such that he can play as a RW (as he does for PSG) when we don’t have the ball and as a CF when we do (see his mazy run when he wins us the penalty).
Argentina were no heavyweights. I witnessed them against Iceland and was quite happy that they knocked out Nigeria (we already had France/Nigeria 4 years ago in Brazil), but never afraid of Messi & Co. Many good articles have been written about the reasons of the team’s poor tournament; they have no quality defenders. Uruguay, however, was another story – French defensive resilience was on show, the kind we have never seen before from the Varane-Umtiti central defensive pairing.
One cannot help but feeling that Tuesday night’s match vs Belgium is the hardest game left in this tournament, wherever France end up after that. Whilst I might have sampled France’s less exciting games of the tournament, I can slowly start to hope that I witnessed the beginning of something truly special.