We arrived to a half-deserted Orly, where a rotating strike had grounded Air France, with more threatened to come. Giant robots roamed the streets, and conceptual artists with faces wrapped in bandages and wearing silver lamé suits prowled the sidewalks, part of a pretournament parade that came across as annoyingly pretentious. In a restaurant, we watched as one of Paris's famous waiters dumped someone's half-eaten frites onto a fresh plate for the next unsuspecting customer. In the newspapers, intellectuals argued about the French team, and whether its multiracial roster of immigrants and their sons would inspire cheers or Jean-Marie Le Pen-led jeers.
It was France 98 eve. The world was pouring in, allez-allez-allez-ing. Why couldn't France stop being, y'know, France, and play along?
A month later, Les Bleus waved from an open-top bus on the Champs-Elysées with the trophy in hand and La Marseillaise in the air – the most incroyable of Bastille Day celebrations. And it was unanimous among our little group of wanderers: the best World Cup ever. No, it was the finest sports event ever seen. Another glass of wine, and yes, it was the greatest lunar cycle Mother Earth has ever produced.
Perhaps that was a reach. But having covered five World Cups, three Olympics (honestly? They don't come close), and too many professional championships (yawn), this was incredibly special, and riding inside its bubble, from that halting start to boffo finish, amounted to the most pleasurable of sensory overloads.
France 98 had infrastructure and location. It had wine. A home side for the ages, and a host country on holiday. Food. Culture. History. Beaches. Wine.
It had Zinedine Zidane at his peak, with most of his hair intact; Ronaldo before his Fat Elvis phase; USA vs. Iran (nobody makes an entrance like the Revolutionary Guard); and the Reggae Boyz. There was David Beckham's red card that put a stopper on the most frantic 45-plus minutes of soccer I've ever seen, and a stunning control and finish from Dennis Bergkamp, the most remarkable goal I'll ever see in person.
It had a Canada Day barroom celebration at our Left Bank local, and in the little Mediterranean seaside town called La Ciotat, a fresh-caught birthday bouillabaisse. In a little town where it was said Hannibal came through with his elephants, there was the most sumptuous lunch of pork medallions, and back in Paris, amazing mussels at an unassuming neighbourhood basement spot favoured by our landlord.
It had a host country celebrating a great victory with its most memorable parade since the Liberation, as one tearful octogenarian local told me – younger observers recalled May '68. Thousands celebrating their semi-final win by sitting down and standing up, filling the roadway to the Arc de Triomphe its ownself with chants of "On est en finale!" and "Thuram président!" – yeah, it had the wave, the least hip of stadium celebrations, rolling up the most famous street of the world's most stylish capital. It had a Bastille Day celebration at our local 10th-arrondissement fire hall, open as per tradition with an all-night party in its courtyard, and we all danced until 5 a.m., fuelled by beer and emotion.
It had a final-match conspiracy theory that lingers to this day, along with the craziest taxi ride ever to get home from there, my driver stopping to fuel himself with more Heineken as he slalomed unsteadily around a Les Miz revival of bonfires, barricades and hopped-up, flag-waving locals. "I can go no further," he said, dropping me four clogged blocks from home, and the first step out of the cab my foot landed on a wine bottle, shattering it and my frazzled nerves.
For us visitors living on football and adrenalin, it was paradise. Sharing a minivan we dubbed the Hearse with Martin Smith of Le Journal de Montreal, we would strike out from our apartment, going in great circles and then coming back, resting a few minutes and starting again, sometimes driving through the night reading l'Equipe to one another to stay awake. We covered 26 matches in 32 days. Occasionally we took trains, where we would fall into conversation with travelling fans, all of us exhausted, some overly lubricated, and suddenly the most significant thing on Earth was an argument over whether Roberto Carlos's thundering free kicks were as important to Brazil's success as his fullback partner Cafu's less showy, more substantive contributions.
Only a World Cup in Europe, where trains and roads connect with the rest of a soccer-mad continent, makes this possible. And Les Bleus' performance confirmed one of the most fundamental World Cup rules: As the home team goes, so goes the tournament. South Africa's failure four years ago took the air right out of it, while the '02 edition's co-hosts were contrasting studies: Rich Japan, halting on the pitch and with the locals, never quite got it, while their former oppressed colony South Korea went nuts, riding a wave to the semi-finals with millions taking to the streets to celebrate.
At France 98, Zidane's face, larger than life on billboards and walls, was as inescapable and iconic as Marianne. A rampaging bull with the feet of a dancer, he was the son of Algerian immigrants to Marseille, and a hero of this new France. The team also had a youthful Thierry Henry, the immensity of Ghana-born defender Marcel Desailly, the tidy midfielder and future French head coach Didier Deschamps (another Marseille-born legend, Eric Cantona, once derided him as a "water-boy"), that noble semi-final man of the moment Lilian Thuram, and their La France Profonde manager Aimé Jacquet.
They all converged for a mid-tournament training session in Villié-Morgon, the heart of Beaujolais country, and more than any match, or jammed Paris Hotel de Ville pep rally, or even that double-decker bus ride to come, the scene signalled just how deep they had reached into their country's collective heart. Everyone in the staunchly Catholic, conservative village and environs took the day off and came out. The winemakers set up homespun booths and served their products into plastic cups. The mayor gave Jacquet a double magnum of Grand Cru. The school choir sang La Marseillaise. The crowd, covering four generations, pressed closer to high-five the players as they headed out to the field.
Afterward, winemaker Bernard Pichet took us back to his family vineyard in Chiroubles, and down into an ancient cellar we went, where he poured off various vintages for us to taste while his 14-year-old son, in a Chicago Bulls shirt, sat on a cask and asked us what Michael Jordan was really like. "He does not want to make wine," Pichet sighed. "Maybe he will change his mind. I hope so."
In little over a month we put nearly 15,000 kilometres on the Hearse, including an overnight drive from Paris to Marseille on the Friday night when, as happens each summer on the same French weekend, everyone goes on holiday. At 3 a.m., the highway was in a state of high anxiety, each car moving along at 100 kilometres an hour in tight unison: an ancient Citroën wrapped in cellophane, it seemed, to keep its baggage from falling off; a brand new Merc with a pair of feet sticking out of a back window. We stopped at a roadside halte, and couldn't find a parking spot. "Christ, we're in Manhattan," Martin said.
When it was winding down, my wife having joined for the final weekend and a few days of touring around Paris, we cooked a communal supper for our landlord, Mme. Martin, a former French fencer with matching Yorkies, and dined al fresco on the sixth-floor balcony. Sacré-Coeur was over our shoulder, and the familiar landmarks of the Eiffel Tower, the Pantheon and Les Invalides were off in the distance reflecting the setting sun like a miraculous, golden dream.
My goodness. What a time. What a month, its singularity only heightened in the years to come, as 9/11 and the rapacious greed of FIFA and their over-a-barrel hosts added an armed-camp, mercenary mentality to future renewals.
Maybe the whole thing was supposed to be a one-off, something never meant to be followed up on – that's how it seemed at a Paris diner, on the day of France's semi-final, when only 90 minutes or so was left between Les Bleus and a date at Saint-Denis in the biggest game on Earth. Everyone was on edge, excited and wary, giddy and fatalistic. I asked the woman serving lunch what she would do if France won. She gave me a dazzling smile and said with complete conviction, "I will dance naked for you."
Of course. At France 98, everyone danced, and at least figuratively, sometimes even literally, tore off their clothes. They played along, and then some. Good luck topping that, Brazil.