5 PM. Jennifer Doyle. Montpellier, France.
I watched the match in a bar on a public square in the gay part of Montpellier, a gorgeous city in the south of France. The World Cup is a death march. All the good stuff happens in groups and the process rarely yields surprises. Still, it was terrific to watch this French team just handle everyone. And it was fun to watch in a big crowd — to sweat it out together (the match was broadcast at 5pm in France, the sun sets sometime after 9pm).
The crowd was rowdy. Someone set off a firecracker at their table. There was some mayhem. Our TV went out for a fraction of a second. People were generally in easy good spirits, though. People love singing “AUX ARMES CITOYENS!”, and I was feeling that. After the match, I went with the crowd down to the Place de la Comédie. People take any excuse to pile onto the fountain there. Mojitos seem to be the drink of the summer. The ground was covered in limes and broken glass. I was drinking a Monaco — beer mixed with grenadine. The Women’s World Cup is in France next year. All this was, for me, just a practice run.
5 PM. Momtaza Mehri. Paris, France.
I watched this year’s World Cup final surrounded by beautiful people, which is another way of saying Afropunk Paris was in town in all its splendour. Canal de l’Ourcq was the spot we chose, just a few Metro stops outside of Afropunk’s radius. The festival’s stragglers arrived fashionably late, in more ways than one. But one thing remains true of the African diaspora: we may be late but we are always on time.
I travelled from a friend’s apartment in an eerily quiet Oberkampf, flustered but ready to watch the French take what was theirs. Parisians knew their boys would bring the cup home. They were lighting flares and blaring horns even before kick off. An assuredness that felt foreign to the British amongst us. With barely enough room to stand, Parisians waited impatiently for this over-determined result. The city was a living, pulsing animal. Each held breath. The timbre of an exhale. The spray of profanities. Patriotic chants to the beat of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. What is a nation but a tangled, heaving mass? An exercise in performance? The Djiboutian Parisians bearing the Gallic rooster who look and speak like me but possess, and are possessed by, a relationship to France I could never fathom.
In the distance, someone waves a Moroccan Flag. We cheer with an Algerian young man who uses red tricolour face paint to scrawl Tahya Aljazayer! (Long Live Algeria) on his friend’s chest. Viva L’Afrique!, shout a congregation of Senegalese elders, reminding us of the important things in life like giving credit where it’s due and especially when it’s overdue. We all know that nothing of any substance will change tomorrow but we choose to revel in the today. After the inevitable result, young men push each other into fountains, canals, streets and onto tables. They leap, and for a moment, so does the country. They, like us, are inextricably bound to ambivalence. They take to it like water. We are young. We are African-descended. We come from here and there and the here before the there. Somali Swedes. Eritrean Germans. Jamaican Brits. And, of course, the Francophone diaspora in all its light-footed and joyous glory. We love what cannot love us in the knowledge that it could never be without us. Do not blame the hungry for feasting on symbolism. Do not think you are beyond it. Sometimes you need a reminder that though they make life impossible, they still cannot foreclose the wonder of its possibilities. All around me is a sea of possibilities. For one night at least, Parisians can hold on to that.
5 PM. Ian Balfour. Paris, France.
Three hours before the game I headed from the metro at Porte de Clignancourt, an un-spiffy neighbourhood, to get to a place I had been tipped off had a good screen and a tent in case of rain: a little food court, with aspirations to the chi-chi, at BHV, the big department store here (more Macy’s than Barney’s). I arrived at a sweet spot, two and a half hours before the game as some Parisians were just leaving to watch the game “in tranquility.” Snagged, providentially, the best seats in the house. A half-dozen people in front of us are soon playing cards. An hour later, a space designed for maybe 40 people is now in fire-marshal territory. Mostly twenty-somethings. But we shared a table with a French couple and their four young girls, the youngest of whom (5?) would echo any and every solitary “Allez les Bleus” as rigorously as Ovid’s Echo. A half hour before the game someone screwed up department store cable access but a feed was improvised through some random dude’s iPhone. Could have been trouble, otherwise.
In this crowd with maybe seven Croatian partisans, hardly any nuance went uncommented” howled at, hooted at, whistled at, cheered, jeered. A precarious French confidence prevailed until the Mbappé goal, when the crowd went wild for their clear favourite. We are all Mbappé. In our dreams. Elegant, fast, strong, inventive, unflappable, upbeat. For a moment, I imagine this big win must be good for race relations in France. The mixed crowd is totally behind this guy and this team. Marine le Pen prefers rugby.
There were more than half a dozen anthems and chants the crowd dexterously broke into, vocal cords still lubricated from Bastille Day. In the closing minute of the no-longer close game, the crowd erupted into “Aux armes, citoyens!” The two days were momentarily one.