La nuit de Séville
This article first appeared in Issue 7 of The Green Soccer Journal, June 2014
Chris Eubank’s favourite Kipling poem is wrong: disaster is not necessarily an impostor. Defeats are, just as often as triumphs, responsible for shaping a nation’s football psyche; indeed, their effects are always felt much more deeply. For this Frenchman, the victories of 1998 and 2000 represent a kind of glorious, still barely explainable parenthesis in a lifetime of frustration; the heartbreak of 1982 speaks with a much clearer voice, somehow.
A Dutchman may agree, reflecting on the Oranje’s defeats in the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978, with a thought also for 2010, even though, on that occasion, they were not on the side of the angels. Hungarians still mourn what was, for Germans, the miracle of Bern in 1954. The shadow of defeat at the Maracanã in 1950 still lingers in Brazil, in spite of the successes that followed. The manner of England’s exit in 1990 – Gazza’s tears, Pearce and Waddle’s penalty misses – has defined the way that the country has lurched between hope, expectation, despair and resignation on the eve of every major tournament ever since, regardless of 1966 and all that.
If history is written by the victors, if winning is ‘the only thing’, then memory lingers on loss far longer than it ought to. There is, perhaps, nothing remarkable in that. Not many of the world’s great love songs conclude in a thatched cottage where everyone lives happily ever after. Why should it be any different in football?
The peculiarity in France’s case is that it does not deserve to be seen as a country that places – in footballing terms, at least – a particular emphasis on its past, as the following example should illustrate. On 27th February, 2012, Armand Penverne, captain of the team that defeated West Germany 6-3 in the third-place play-off at the 1958 World Cup, died aged 85. Two days later, Les Bleus were scheduled to play a friendly against Die Mannschaft in Bremen, which they went on to win 2-1. In any other major footballing country, this would have been the perfect opportunity to celebrate a former great. But there was no minute’s silence, black armbands weren’t worn, and I can’t recall the commentators on French national television even mentioning the name of the late Stade de Reims defender in their broadcast. And that was two days after he’d died. If one thing characterises French football, it has to be amnesia.
In that context, what happened at Sevilla’s Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán on 8th July, 1982 is a remarkable exception. This is the game we can’t forget. More than three decades on, people who weren’t even born at the time still refer to it as if they’d died a thousand deaths that night. France, leading 3-1 in extra-time against West Germany (again), were 12 minutes away from their first ever World Cup final when, after Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had pulled a goal back, Klaus Fischer’s bicycle kick beat Jean-Luc Ettori to square the match and set up a penalty shoot-out. All too predictably, it went the Germans’ way.
But this tells only half the story. To think that Manuel Amoros had seen his shot rebound off Harald Schumacher’s crossbar in the last minute of normal time; to think that the German goalkeeper had rushed out of his box and floored Patrick Battiston in the second half, knocking him unconscious and dislodging two of his teeth; to think that Dutch referee Charles Corver had subsequently awarded a goal-kick instead of sending off the ’keeper henceforth nicknamed le boucher or le dentiste by French fans.
In our minds, this was a series of calamities that would have made Job think twice about retracting and repenting of dust and ashes. The images still haunt us: skipper Michel Platini holding Battiston’s hand as Schumacher’s victim was stretchered off the field (“I feared he was dead,” Platini would later admit – I think we all did); Maxime Bossis hunched on the grass in despair after seeing his penalty-kick saved by the insufferably arrogant German ’keeper; Alain Giresse’s explosion of pure joy when his gorgeous low drive gave us a 3-1 lead we thought unassailable. No other game in French football history is so iconic, not even the 3-0 win over Brazil in Saint-Denis in 1998. In 2012, to coincide with the game’s 30th anniversary, France Football magazine devoted all of its Friday edition to the commemoration of ‘the night when football earned a place in the history of France’, to quote columnist Hubert Artus. The magazine came accompanied by a DVD of the Nacht von Sevilla, as Germans call it; in their country too, it has acquired a quasi-mythical status.
The extraordinary narrative – and quality – of that match, which appears in almost every list of the greatest games ever contested at a World Cup finals, goes only some way to explaining the hold it continues to exert on the French. That evening, we saw all of our aspirations crystallised in a cruel, bewilderingly seductive nightmare. French football, until then an object of pity (and sometimes derision), acquired an aura of doomed nobility which, in many ways, was preferable to the heartless dominance of, say, West Germany.
In our eyes, at least. Sevilla was justice wronged. But justice nonetheless. The silky quality and fairness of our play, combined with the brutal cynicism of our opponents, brought proof that there was a higher truth in sport than that expressed in the mere fact of winning. The Germans had been tainted by their triumph, and got their just desserts when Italy crushed them 3-1 in the final. They’d won only to be defeated when it mattered most, and must have been aware that the whole world was rejoicing in their disappointment.
There was such a thing as a ‘moral victor’ after all: not just a beaten team which ‘deserved’ a kinder fate; but a team that embodied the morality of sport as a whole. And that team was France. We’d found ourselves; or, to be more precise, we’d found our self, our pride, our identity. Ever since, all that we’ve achieved, and all that we’ve failed to achieve has been seen through the prism of that dreadful, wonderful night. The sad crew of 2010, those traîtres à la nation who staged a ludicrous strike at the South Africa World Cup and exited the competition shortly afterwards, have not yet been forgiven. Rightly so, for they were not only betraying the fans, the country and the spirit of the competition, they were betraying what, at Sevilla, we had shown to be our true selves.