PARIS, July 12: I'm far too young to have been around the day World War II ended. But I imagine that Paris that day must have felt something like it does at this very moment.
Fifteen minutes ago, the French national team completed an astounding upset of the vaunted Brazilians to win the 1998 World Cup. Around the base of the Arc de Triomphe thousands pack the streets, screaming, yelling, singing, embracing, dancing, rejoicing. Cars honk their horns in time to the chants. Strangers high-five or hug one another in pure joy.
On the left side of the Arc itself is a 40-foot projected image of Zinedine Zidane, scorer of two goals tonight. He has instantaneously become the greatest sporting legend France has ever known. Along the cross bar of the Arc the words "Zidane for President" are projected in blue laser light.
The crowd slowly surges around the Arc toward the heart of the party, the Champs Ilysies. Under a lovely yellow moon, hundreds of thousands are packed onto the grand boulevard. For as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but people and flags.
Since early this afternoon the Champs has been buzzing with excitement. Around 4 p.m., supporters of both France and Brazil jammed the sidewalks chanting, cheering and singing. Motorcyclists sped up and down the street using giant flags as flowing capes. Scantily clad girls in French face paint roared by in convertibles, singing "Allez les Bleus."
But there are almost no cars on the Champs now, just one massive river of humanity flowing slowly but so, so happily away from the Arc in the direction of Place de la Concorde. Children sit atop their fathers' shoulders waving French flags. Teenagers light off alarmingly large firecrackers. Lovers cling tightly to one another as they make their way through the mayhem.
Amid the thousands of French flags, quite a few green, white and red Algerian ones can be seen as well. Tonight's victory is particularly sweet for the millions of people of North African descent living in France. After all, Zidane is the son of Algerian immigrants. They wildly chant "Zee-Zou! Zee-Zou!" with understandable passion and pride.
Every now and then the river slows momentarily to a halt. Shouts of "Assis! Assis!" can be heard and suddenly hundreds of people crouch down. A moment later they jump to their feet, launching a massive human wave down the Champs, the kind you ordinarily see only in football stadiums.
Down the side streets are large police trucks with cops standing outside at the ready should any trouble break out. But they have little to do and one of them borrows a fan's cell phone to call his wife and celebrate the victory with her.
Parisians are never averse to public displays of affection and many young couples celebrate tonight's victory with heightened amorous displays. Against one of the police vans, two teenagers passionately make out. The young man slips his hand up under her blouse and fondles her left breast. A cop stands by looking bored.
Back on the Champs, a 50-foot-wide French national jersey is being put in place on the side of a business building by men dangling from long ropes. A bank flashes the game's final score every minute or so and fans stop to watch it, as if they want to double-check that it really has happened. Every time "France 3, Bresil 0" comes up, they roar.
There are no cabs to be found in Paris tonight. The buses and metros are not running either, so I have no choice but to walk to the opposite end of town where I am staying. At the enormous Place de La Concorde, hundreds of cars are at a standstill but no one seems to mind. Fans honk and sing over and over: "On est champions! On est champions! On est, on est, on est champions!"
Or simply, "On a gagni!" ("We won!")
The party continues down the Rue de Rivoli. As cars and motorcycles roll by, their drivers reach out to high-five each and every one of us walking in the opposite direction. Fans dance for joy, then hop into complete strangers' cars for rides back toward the Champs.
Parisians complained their way through the entire run-up to the World Cup, then showed little interest in the tournament during the first round. But once it became apparent that France might actually win this thing, the town came alive. Tonight is the culmination of celebrations that have been growing in size with each successive victory by "les Bleus." When France advanced for the first time ever into the semifinals with a victory on Wednesday, 300,000 people jammed the Champs Ilysies. Tonight, there must be at least half a million out there, if not more. One police officer well into his 50s told me he's never seen anything that compares to this. Neither have I.
It's now 4 a.m. in Paris. I'm sitting at the dining room table of a friend's apartment in the Fifth arrondisement, listening to the car horns that continue to blare just outside the window. But if you listen carefully, you can hear something else as well. It's the sound of air whistling ever so gently out of a soccer ball the size of planet earth.
The World Cup is over. Sure, the party will go on for days in France, but for the rest of us fanatics the long wait until 2002 has officially begun.
Unlike the Olympics, the world's second most important sporting event, the World Cup produces only one winner. Nations cannot take pride in winning minor competitions like ice dancing or cross-country skeet shooting. Either your country takes the Cup or it doesn't. This sense of total and complete victory over the rest of the planet explains in part the reckless abandon with which the French are partying at this very moment. For the next four years, they have the right to call themselves the best at the most beloved sport on earth.
The importance of that right is simply incomprehensible to us Americans. After all, we often kick this whole planet around like it's a soccer ball. Our political, economic and cultural influence is so significant that we take it for granted. Arrive in any foreign country around the globe and inevitably someone will want to talk your ear off about Harrison Ford, President Clinton or Michael Jordan -- and do so in English. Accurate or inaccurate, who we are and what we stand for is already ingrained in the minds of billions, regardless of how our national team plays.
The same cannot be said for any other nation on earth, even big countries such as France. For the next four years and probably a good deal longer, any Frenchman will be able to get off a plane in the tiniest corner of the earth and light up a face by uttering with nationalistic pride, "Zinedine Zidane."
But for many of the 31 other participating nations, all losers, World Cup '98 was cruel and unforgiving. The Italians were eliminated on penalty kicks, that absurd way soccer settles ties, for the third time. The English, taking part in their first Cup in eight years, played valiantly a man short against their Falklands rivals, the Argentines, before they too succumbed on penalties.
But the most tragic story of the tournament belongs to the Netherlands. Unlike the Italians, who have actually won the Cup three times, and the English, who won it in '66, the Dutch have never tasted the sweet fruit of World Cup victory. During the '70s they fielded what is considered to have been one of the greatest sides of all time. Led by the charismatic if irascible Johann Cruyff, they played a wonderfully fluid brand of soccer known as "total football." Under an egalitarian schema, all 10 of the field players could play any position at any time (the goalkeeper stayed put).
In 1974, wearing their distinctive bright orange jerseys, the Dutch made it to the final match of the World Cup but somehow lost to the Germans. In 1978, they reached the final again, but lost a highly disputed match to Argentina in Buenos Aires. Since then, Holland has consistently fielded good teams, each with a genuine shot at winning the Cup. But internal squabbles and bad luck have prevented them from getting there.
This year, the Dutch played some of the best football of the tournament. After a rocky start against Belgium, they demolished South Korea, defeated a strong Yugoslavian side, then knocked their old nemesis Argentina out in the quarterfinals on a brilliant last-minute goal. A far cry from the groovy orange innovators of the '70s or the bickering prima donnas of the '80s and early '90s, this Dutch side played with verve, passion, extraordinary team spirit and single-minded determination. It looked like they might finally, at long last, gain the Holy Grail.
Then they ran into the Brazilians. And although they were the South American wizards' equals during 120 minutes of actual play, they were no match when the game went to penalties. Brazil's keeper made one fantastic save and the Dutch were finished.
Perhaps because of my penchant for lost causes (I'm a Red Sox fan and once worked for Michael Dukakis), somewhere along the road I hopped aboard the Dutch bandwagon. They played an aggressive, "let's score goals" brand of soccer, which was fun to watch. Isn't the point of soccer to score goals? you might ask. Well, yes, but because it is such a low-scoring game, a number of teams, particularly those from Eastern Europe, play a style called "counterattack," where nearly all their men play defense, waiting for one or two chances to fast-break toward the other team's goal. Worse still are the Italians, who, in typical fashion, scored one goal against Norway a few weeks ago, then whittled away the rest of the game, clinging to their puny lead until the final whistle. These teams give football a bad name.
Several weeks ago, I made three friends from the Guatemalan Football Association. Spain was to play Bulgaria in Lens that night and the last train from Paris was about to leave. I had a spot at the front of the ticket line so I bought them seats. By way of thanks, they gave me their spare ticket to the game. In the quiet of the 1 a.m. TGV back to Paris, "Bud," the most articulate of the three, described the World Cup as "the biggest party on earth."
That seems an apt description, though many supporters might add that the Cup is actually a costume party, a masquerade ball of sorts with invitations that read, "Come as Your Country's Most Clichéd Cultural Icon." From the Dutch fans with their orange wooden clogs to the Scots in their kilts and fake red beards to the Mexicans with their enormous sombreros to the Brazilians with their incessant samba beats, the World Cup is about celebrating and/or poking fun at your nation's cultural stereotypes. That's not to say that the soccer itself isn't taken very, very seriously. It is. But the party that goes on around each match is what makes the Cup such a strange, colorful and ultimately fantastic spectacle.
The great bazaar is now closed until 2002, when the next Cup will be staged in Japan and South Korea. The flags and inflated soccer balls hanging over Rue Moufetarde are coming down. The French Organizing Committee is selling two-inch squares of the Stade de France pitch at 120 francs apiece to make up for a $200 million budget shortfall. And this afternoon, tens of thousands of us will head to Charles de Gaulle or Orly airports for flights home.
The world's greatest party has come to a close. The long wait for World Cup 2002 is upon us.