The Spot

Paul Pogba’s Joyful, Exuberant Moment of Brilliance Was the Play of Euro 2016

Paul Pogba of France celebrates his team’s 2-0 win in the UEFA Euro semifinal match between Germany and France at Stade Velodrome on July 7, 2016 in Marseille, France.

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Thursday night’s semifinal match between France and Germany in many ways felt like a final. That was in part because many in France seem resigned to the idea that, as is customary, they would lose to the Germans. But Les Bleus pulled off a victory, 2-0, and in the process silenced skeptics and incited a burst of intense enthusiasm here in France. The celebrations in Paris that night were spurred on by a sense of surprise, and delight. On the subways and cafés and in crowds that flooded onto the streets, people chanted: “On est en finale!!”—“We’re in the final!”—and intoned the Marseillaise, many still not quite believing what had just happened.

The highlight of the game for me was one motion of Paul Pogba’s right foot. Not when it kicked the ball or dribbled, but when—for a delightful moment—he waved it about, playfully, in front of the German defender.

The distraction enabled Pogba to cut left and send in a cross that was punched into the goal by Antoine Griezmann. It was joyful, a moment of grace on the pitch. It summed up the French performance that night: a little improbable, unexpected, alight.

Football creates its own strange chronologies, connecting events years or decades apart, sometimes seeming to place them in the same moment in time. That was powerfully true on Thursday. “There is a history between France and Germany,” as Aleksandar Hemon wrote on this blog the other day, and it is a sedimented with disappointment and symbolism. The last time France defeated Germany in an international competition was during the 1958 World Cup. The scoreline was an impressive one: 6-3, with four goals scored by one player, Just Fontaine.

Since then, it has been all defeats, the most memorable of them in the 1980s. French fans have not forgotten. I watched the semifinal with a friend, historian Jean Hebrard, who vividly remembers listening to the legendary 1982 France-West Germany World-Cup semifinal on the radio. It was a traumatic defeat for France, of course processed through a larger historical lens of generations who had grown up during or soon after World War II. As Jean told me after the match, there was a way in which he’d been waiting 34 years to find some measure of resolution.

We began watching the match feeling like a German victory was both unacceptable and nearly inevitable. I joked with Jean that my hope was that France would prevent Germany from scoring for at least the first two minutes. “No,” he riposted, feigning pride, “we’ll last at least three minutes!” Thirty minutes in, we concluded that Jeanne d’Arc must be intervening to prevent a German goal—that was the only possible explanation. In reailty, there were reasons for confidence. Germany’s tactics were, as usual, impeccable, with short passes in the midfield, building towards a goal. Except, missing key players, they never got that close to the goal. France defended successfully, and also—throughout the game—had plenty of luck. “Les Allemands n’ont pas de chance,” Jean kept repeating, with a smile. “Those Germans are unlucky.”

German coach Joachim Löw claimed afterwards they were the “better team”—naturally—but as the match wore on he seemed increasingly desperate, as did many of the German players. The most memorable image of Löw from Thursday night is this pastiche of one of his desperate faces with Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

When Jérome Boateng, the pivotal defender for Germany, injured himself and was helped off the field, his expression as he sat on the bench—a towel over his head—suggested he knew they were going to lose. His absence was key: the defender who replaced him, Shodran Mustafi, was beaten by Pogba on that cross that led to the second goal.

The game took place in Marseille, where at the beginning of the tournament English and Russian fans had fought one another, with flares launched into one section of the stadium after altercations in the streets. The crowds on Thursday were raucous, but nothing like that happened this time. And as intense as the game was, there was a palpable sense of respect and camaraderie on the pitch, with comparatively few confrontations.

That may have been because of some more recent history that connects the two teams. France and Germany last played against each other in a friendly match on November 13 of last year, in the Stade de France. It was the night of the terror attacks in France, during which several men tried to set off bombs in the stadium during the game. They failed to enter the stadium itself, so the explosions took place near an entrance and on nearby streets. Those explosions were heard inside the stadium, causing Patrice Evra at one point to pause, but only briefly. With many in the stadium unaware of what was happening, the game was played to the end that night, and France won the match, also by the score of 2-0.

Two of the French players on the pitch that night, Antoine Griezmann and Lassana Diarra (who is not on the roster for the European Cup), had relatives who were caught up in the attacks elsewhere in Paris. Griezmann’s sister survived the attack on the Bataclan, while Diarra’s cousin was killed by gunmen at a nearby café.

Rather than risk travelling in the city on November 13, the two teams ended up spending the night, together, in the stadium. That experience might have tied them together in ways that shaped the way they approached Thursday’s game.

Like previous French teams, this one has many players of immigrant background. The numbers are not as large as they were in 2006, when fully 19 of the 23 men on the roster were of either Caribbean or African (including North African) descent. Six of the players who started against Germany are the children of African immigrants, along with a key substitute, N’Golo Kanté of Leicester City. Another French star , Dimitri Payet, is from Reunion Island, a department of France in the Indian Ocean. And the new national hero Griezmann’s grandfather was a Portuguese football player named Amaro Lopes. Given that the far-right National Front party has long trolled French players of immigrant heritage, a victory for this team would help send a message—as it did when France won the World Cup in 1998—that the nation is only strengthened by its diversity.

The French team has received plenty of criticism in recent years. They fizzled at the 2014 World Cup, and in 2010 the team basically melted down as players revolted against the coach. The spokesman for the players then was Patrice Evra, who spent a while in exile from the national team as a result. But the current coach Didier Deschamps brought him back and Evra is now a pillar of the team, a veteran whose role has been fundamental on and off the pitch. The playful relationship between Evra and Pogba, for instance, is captured in this video and in a hilarious post-match moment in which the two of them pretended to be journalists interview each other.

They face their final test in Portugal tomorrow night. Here, history is in their favor, for it has been a long, long time since Portugal has defeated France. Still, the Portuguese have been a tough test before. France’s semifinal match against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup was hard fought, and only the heroics of defender Lilian Thuram kept the Portuguese at bay.

One of the standout performances against Germany this Thursday came from defender Samuel Umtiti, who reminded me of Thuram: ever-present, seeming oddly serene given that it was only his second senior-level international match. If he plays Sunday, he will likely have to make a few key stops against to help France through.

Football rarely follows the script people want it to. But if France wins Sunday, the plot will feel perfect (maybe a little too perfect). It won’t be 1998, in part because the country has already learned from that experience that the hope and unity generated from a football victory is necessarily fleeting. But for young French fans raised on the legends of that year, it will be a chance to take to the streets, feeling free and fearless, and for a time live out and imagine what Hemon has called “a better France.”

In an essay about his own practice of football in Chicago—entitled “If God Existed He’d Be A Solid Midfielder”—Hemon wrote about the pleasure of “the moment, arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy the ideal position on the field; the moment when the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours.” It almost always quickly “perishes—as moments tend to” but it captures that “pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me.”

On a much larger scale, that is what I—and certainly millions upon millions of others in France—felt when Pogba danced briefly before passing to Griezmann.

We can hope that we’ll some of those moments on Sunday night. If so, the streets of Paris will be filled with honking cars and buses, with people who are suddenly friends, connected by a flag and stories about the moments they just watched together on the pitch. And, maybe, the night will stretch out and feel, for a few hours, like it leads to some place new—a different France, a different Europe.

Read more Slate coverage of Euro 2016.