The choirmaster conducting the junior choir Christmas concert at Montpellier's ugly cathedral, a beardy bear of a man, announced that the next piece – Away in a Manger
– could be sung in either French or English. The choir would sing it in both languages. Pause. 'Les pauvres Anglais,' he added sadly. A small, polite laugh rustled around the cavernous space.
This was the day after France had knocked England out of the soccer World Cup; and, looking back now, I realise that this little joke from a muscular Christian was the nearest I heard anywhere to the jingoistic crowing one might have expected had the result gone the other way. The consensus of French media analysis was that the English team's performance in the tournament had merited a kinder outcome. France was neither surprised nor embarrassed to win. Nevertheless, the England side looked good for the future. The English could take heart.
By then France had bigger fish to fry, culminating in its rendezvous with Argentina in an epic final. Even for a sports refusenik like me (aside, that is, from pétanque: have I mentioned that I'm the reigning club champion?), this was pure Boys' Own
stuff. The stakes could hardly have been higher. Both countries had won the trophy twice. A third win and you get to keep the pot. As they might say in another jurisdiction, everybody hoped it was coming home.
Argentina established an early two-goal lead. The French team rallied improbably, clawing two back. Both sides then scored in extra time. Both laid on stylish and even heroic play, in which fortunes ricocheted from one end of the pitch to another. Both fielded players with a valid claim to be the best in the world, and both these men performed beyond superbly. Argentina's Lionel Messi dominated the attack, scoring an early penalty that temporarily demoralised France, and then another in the shoot-out. France's Kylian Mbappé scored a hat-trick, including the two goals within 90 seconds that put France back in contention. It would have been a preposterous script if written.
Instead, it was a game that left everybody, winners and losers, with a satisfying sense of achievement. 'Elation in Argentina, sorrow in France' announced the BBC on its website, ever eager to understand the world in binary terms. I have to say that I did not personally witness any great sorrow, not on the night nor on the next day. People chatted animatedly about the match, but with engagement rather than sorrow. The talk I heard around town was mostly about how great a game it had been. True, there are French cities more invested in soccer than Montpellier, which prefers the pointy ball. But the streets did not seem unduly sullen or mournful, not even for a Monday, when many shops and restaurants are closed. Montpellier is never exactly lowping on a Monday.
More surprisingly perhaps, the French media generally adopted the same tone of acceptance. Even the immediate post-match television talk was upbeat, impressed and cheerful. It had been great football, with both sides summoning rare resilience and 'character'. A youthful French side had shown fine promise for the future. The next day's press echoed this. Le Monde
called it 'une finale d'anthologie' and 'une finale d'exception', and said that Mbappé had validated his leadership, now and for the years ahead. Our regional paper, Midi Libre
, came the closest to sorrow with the rueful headline 'So far, so close', but assigned legend status to both Messi and Mbappé.
The reverent tone bore none of the 'we-wuz-robbed-sack-the-manager-shoot-the-ref' petulance that one fears might have been on display in the London tabloids after a similar disappointment. Prior to England's game with France, the headlines had been the usual mix of Churchill and 'Allo, 'Allo!
('Yes Oui can' – Daily Mirror
; 'Let's make French toast' – The Sun
) Nor, for that matter, did I detect the 'aye, gubbed again' fatalism of the Scottish sports media, following as it so often does upon days of hyperbole about why this time it's all going to be different.
What strikes me about the moderate, measured reaction in France to such a signal sporting defeat is that it's not much different when they win. I was here in 2018, when France won its second World Cup in 20 years and, as I wrote in Scottish Review
at the time, the fuss did not take long to die down after a hot night of corks popping, fireworks going off and a boisterous crowd dancing in the Place de la Comedie. Within a couple of days, the tricolours that had appeared at windows were back in the drawer, and within a couple of weeks market stalls were discounting over-ordered World Cup t-shirts. Some countries, I remarked, would still have been banging on about it 52 years later.
This time around, the loudest racket we heard came from Moroccans, the night their team became the first ever from Africa to make it to the semi-finals. Montpellier has a large and exuberant community of Moroccans, who like to let you know when they're happy. They roared around the streets in convoys of battered old cars, horns blaring and windows flung open for flag-waving, chanting celebrants to lean out and proclaim their joy. The Morrocans celebrate weddings in the same way, with the added decibels of ferocious firecrackers. Many Moroccans live in a long battery of flats atop a limestone bluff, the Hauts de Massane, which overlooks an echoing canyon with a lake at the bottom. We were once walking by this lake when a wedding got going up above. It was like finding yourself inside Keith Moon's drumkit.
I was here too in 2013, when Andy Murray won the men's title at Wimbledon for the first time. The British media raved on for days, like it was the second coming. They had little time to notice that the women's title had been won by a Frenchwoman, Marion Bartoli. Her success made the main news bulletins in France for 12 hours, and then she was back in the sports sections. That, the French believe, is where sport belongs. News headlines are for news.
They don't seem to buy, and neither do I, the idea that the performance of one country's 11 players against the 11 fielded by someone else tells you anything useful about the relative nobility of nations. If international sport is a metaphor for anything, it is about how countries behave rather than what they're worth. Patriotism, as Shaw said, is the conceit that your country is the best in the world because you were born there. The French are very glad to have been born French, but their patriotism is mostly positive. It does not generally involve denigrating others.
It is always dangerous to generalise. I've no doubt there are individual French supporters just as deranged as any of their British counterparts. Still, you do gain a reasonable overall impression from the respective tones of the commentariat, amateur and professional. The frustrated soccer support that trashes properties and people is not a uniquely British blight, but it is one that the world associates with us. What I'm left with is a conviction that the first step to putting your defeats into a sensible perspective is learning to do the same for your triumphs.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster