Dimitri Payet wept. After firing in his superb 89th-minute winner for France, he had performed his usual celebration, ruining away, arms outstretched, chest outthrust, coxcomb flapping. Payet is not a player short of self-belief or shy of drawing attention to himself. But as the final whistle went he broke down. By the time he reached the tunnel, the tears were pouring down his face.
Perhaps in part it was personal satisfaction: it’s only recently, after all, that he returned to the national side and even someone with his self-confidence must have wondered whether, at 29, his chance had gone. But it was also, surely, about more than that, a recognition of what this meant for France.
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The opening ceremony had been the usual kaleidoscope of weirdness, all spinning lips, accordions and shrubs, presided over by David Guetta in a merry-go-round at the heart of a maze. There had been no overt mention of the bomb that was detonated outside this stadium in November as France played Germany in a friendly, part of attacks on Paris that left 130 dead. That, presumably, was a conscious policy: a morbid tournament obsessed by terror would be a strain for everybody, and not much of a riposte. The sense seems to be that defiance comes from getting on with life, making this as normal a tournament as possible.
But there was extra poignancy in the Marseillaise. It’s always an inspiring anthem, but the sense of pride with which it was sung here was palpable. That was the tribute to those who died in November, and all the more moving for not being stage-managed. The contrast with the grim scenes from Marseille was appalling: on the one hand a celebration of football and it’s power to unify; on the other brainlessness, diverting police resources that are desperately needed so that the tournament can go ahead. Pride on the one hand; shame on the other.
Dimitri Payet leaves the field in tears (Twitter)
Image credit: Eurosport
It’s easy for lines to become confused. That the patriotic surge behind France carried the memory of November was undeniable and there would have been a sense of anti-climax had France not won, but that does not make Romania in any sense the villains. They played their part, showing more attacking intent than many had expected, and having an excellent chance at the beginning of each half as well as the penalty that they scored. While there are encouraging signs for them, there is also reason for France to be concerned.
Too many vaunted players were off their game. Paul Pogba’s contribution was intermittent and he was withdrawn for Anthony Martial with 15 minutes remaining in what felt a pointed substitution. “I'm not going to be too hard on him,” said the France manager Didier Deschamps, “but clearly his potential is such that he can contribute more than he showed tonight."
Didier Deschamps greets Dimitri Payet
Image credit: Imago
Antoine Griezmann, other than a header against the post, was only a flickering threat, too often occupying the same space as Olivier Giroud who had a typical night, missing a hatful of chances before finally bullying in front of the Romania goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu to score.
The cross, of course, came from Payet. It’s startling now to think that it was only in the 2010, yet this was only his 19th cap. "If someone had told me a year ago it would go like this I wouldn't have believed it," he said. Payet was, by far, France’s biggest threat, a thoughtful, deft presence who set up eight of their 12 chances – and then scored one of the other four.
He had a tremendous season for West Ham, of course, having excelled for Marseille the year before, and the confidence he has drawn from that was clear. At times he seemed to bounce with the ball, his feet preternaturally quick, head always up, looking for options. After Bogdan Stancu had volleyed a chance wide early in the second half, it was as though Payet decided he had to do something to open the game up.
He slid a through ball to Giroud, who hit his shot straight at Tatarusanu. He pulled away on the left, checked suddenly as Cristian Sapunaru kept charging, and pulled a cross back to the edge of the box for Pogba. He caught his volley powerfully enough, but Tatarusanu blocked. And then from the resulting corner he got the ball on the right and floated in the cross that Giroud converted. All that in the space of five minutes.
Image credit: AFP
By the end, though, there was need for an even more decisive intervention. ‘There was a lot of stress, a lot of pressure," Payet said, explaining both the need to win and the ragged nature of France’s performance. Romania’s equaliser, scored from the penalty spot after a stupid foul by Patrice Evra, who had a dismal night, seemed to deflated the hosts. The flow of chances of the first hour dried up. Romania, who had drawn against France in their first game at Euro 2008, looked like getting a similar result. And then the ball fell to Payet at the edge of the box.
He scored nine goals in the league last season, a third of them from outside the penalty area, more with accurate strikes into the top corner. He caught this shot with characteristic accuracy and power and it sped beyond the dive of Tatarusanu into the top corner. Everything that had gone before was redeemed. Deschamps will worry about the raggedness of his side’s display, but there is plenty of time to put that right. For fans there was a narrative with a perfect ending, adversity overcome with beauty and a win to start the tournament.
There’s something perhaps a little strange in the thought that France’s two most effective players, N’Golo Kante and Payet, were the last to force their way into the side, that neither were guaranteed their places a month ago, but a willingness to adapt plans is a key part of planning.
Few, anyway, will care how it came about if Payet is weeping tears of joy again in the Stade de France in a month.
From Jonathan Wilson in Paris @jonawils
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