The French support might not be as loud as the Northern Irish or as extraordinary as the Irish, but ahead of the quarterfinal, fans of the host nation are starting to believe.
In the sleepy village of Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines lies France’s state of the art football academy. Covering nearly 60 hectares just outside Paris, the modern facility is one of the most complete in the world, and includes a youth academy for the next generation of French stars.
It is from here that the golden generation of 1998 emerged, here where Thierry Henry refined his natural gifts and here where over 400 fans were invited to watch their country’s best train on Wednesday.
Ever since France head coach Didier Deschamps arrived after Euro 2012, he has worked hard to improve the connection between the fans and the team. It may look like a marketing ploy, but to those fans in the small stadium it was a chance to get to close to their heroes.
The kind of mass excitement once termed Beatle-mania, is now an everyday occurrence in football – and it is very much in evidence at Clairefontaine. Fans run screaming and crying towards Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba, amongst others, in search of a selfie or a signature. All came out with a smile on their faces, some with a signed football in their hand.
The hope is that France advance in the tournament and this connection continues to grow. In Marseille and Lyon, there’s a clear sense that football is what matters but in Paris, football is simply one more thing on the menu. This is a hindrance to Deschamps and his men.
Football love slowly spreading
“The Parisian public is very hard on the team,” says Loic Tanzi, a journalist covering the French team. “That’s why it’s not good news for France to play at Stade de France, because if the score is still 0-0 after 15 minutes there will be a lot of pressure on the team. And when you ask the players, they say the same thing. They don’t really like to play at the Stade de France.”
If Paris – the excellent fan zone excluded – is the problem, then the hope is that days like this in Clairefontaine (along with victories on the pitch) are the solution, for both the fans and the team.
“I think it’s a communication operation,” says Damian Dubras from French sports daily ‘L’Equipe.’ “We’ve said for the last few weeks that the French team are very closed. We can’t see the players. We rarely see Dider Deschamps. We see very few training sessions. So today is a perfect day. Foreign journalists, like you, are here, training is open, the fans. Everything is perfect in France,” added Dubras.
PR operation or not, it’s refreshing to see a team open up to their fans despite growing pressure and expectation and an ever-present backdrop of strikes and unrest.
“We hope that the support will grow during the competition, but we’re playing Iceland so people don’t want to cheer because they think that it’s easy. If we play against Germany or Italy, then maybe people will go (and lend their support),” says Dubras.
Pivotally, for both France and the team, that game will be in Marseille. Dubras insists it will be very different to anything we’ve seen so far in the capital. The hope is that by then the whole country will believe that this France’s time.