The specter of German inevitability is haunting global soccer. Since the beginning of the Women’s World Cup, top-ranked Germany has been a clear favorite and it has seemed unstoppable from the first. Like their male counterparts at last year’s Men’s World Cup, the Germans have an incredible reservoir of talent, a tight, well-organized and technically brilliant of style of play, and a clear confidence and mental toughness that is impressive and even a little scary—at least when you are rooting for the other team, as I was Friday in Montreal.
But Friday, Germany was almost stopped by France in a game for the ages, one which the Germans won in penalties after the score was tied 1–1 at the end of extra time. The match had everything: It was technically and psychologically complex and layered, offering a constant flow of beautiful and riveting plays, along with plenty of the drama that makes this sport so great, questionable refereeing (don’t get me started!), emotional ups and downs, a grueling and at times humorous overtime, and then a sudden, shocking ending, the purest form of climactic anti-climax that is the penalty kick shootout.
Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is a cavernous, dilapidated place that looks like it hasn’t been renovated at all since 1976. Designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, it is in its way a beautiful building, at least from a far and in principle, but also oddly malfunctioning: The retractable roof took decades to install, then didn’t work very well and then was replaced starting in 1992 by a semi-permanent (if occasionally leaky) roof. The original plan hadn’t really taken into account the fact that, occasionally, it snows a little bit in Montreal.
The setting didn’t matter that much, though; the atmosphere was perfect, indeed electric. There was a sense of openness about Friday anyway, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality that also had the U.S. women’s team inspired. It was a flowing, upbeat crowd, a large and loud cohort of fans rooting for France, but a respectable German showing as well, including the also inevitable old guy with the cow bell, and one heavily painted and be-wigged fellow who kept bellowing “Deeeeeutschland!” There were lots of U.S. fans already prepped for Tuesday, and after the game many flowed out into the streets chanting “USA! USA!”
The crowd had the same elated feel as those I remember at the 2010 Men’s World Cup in South Africa, except that it was much more balanced, with as many women as men, and many kids, including what looked like an entire girl’s youth team in their uniforms. It was a perfect soccer crowd, what a stadium should look like rather than the largely (and sometimes overwhelmingly) male crowds to which we’ve grown accustomed. I was reminded of the remarkable scene that took place in Turkey in 2011, when after an episode of violence between fan groups, organizers decided to only let women and children into a game, producing this fantastic scene.
Many of the French fans were wearing jerseys with the names of their favorite men’s players; one man sauntered past with a "Valbuena" jersey, another sitting in front of me with “Zidane” on his back. Though this is starting to change a bit—you can get a boy’s or men’s Alex Morgan jersey, and I’m sure I’ll see plenty of those on Tuesday—it is striking how difficult it is to get jerseys with women’s players names on them. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing I could have worn a "Necib" or "Le Sommer" jersey to the match.
As for the German fans, many were of course proudly wearing their snazzy post-2014 four-starred official jerseys. I wondered if someday they’ll somehow acknowledge their combined Men’s and Women’s World Cup victories, which would make for six stars on the jersey, and maybe, in not too long, seven. With that many stars, you could surround the crest almost entirely with a circle of stars, which would be a pretty powerful way of bellowing “Deeeeeeeutschland!” to the rest of the world.
I was there for the French team, though. Like the men’s team, the group stands out among European teams for its diverse backgrounds: Marie-Laure Delie’s parents are from the Ivory Coast, while Wendie Renard, Laura Georges and Elodie Thomis have roots in the French Caribbean departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe. There is also a contingent of five players of north African background: Louisa Necib, goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, Kheira Hamraoui, Jessica Houra-d’Hommeaux and Amel Majri. Necib had been benched after France’s 2–0 loss to Colombia, one of the greatest upsets in recent history. But she was back against South Korea, bringing her flowing play to the midfield, seeming confident and even serene in that match and again Friday.
I was particularly excited to see that 22-year-old Majri had been placed in the starting lineup. Tunisian born, she played with the Tunisian youth team before opting to play for France. Playing Majri turned out to be brilliant decision by manager Philippe Bergeroo Friday. Her fast attacks and defensive one-on-one play, notably against the always-threatening Celia Sasic, was a delight to watch.
France clearly had a plan from the get-go. It had a strategic offense, building up its plays carefully from the back trio of Renard, Georges and Bouhaddi, knowing that giving any kind of opening to the German forwards would be disastrous. Fast and technical on the ball, the French seemed to have the upper hand on Germany for much of the first half. But they didn’t score, and Germany soon tightened up and responded more and more strongly. At the half it seemed likely the game was going to turn in France's favor, and it did. Necib fired a glorious, perfect strike in the 64th minute that put France up 1–0.
It has been a long time since I have felt so moved and happy about a goal. It felt like everything had come together perfectly: Necib’s story itself, the play that set up the moment, the strike, the billowing net, the crowd bursting out, the man in the "Zidane" shirt next to me high-fiving everyone around him, the chant of “Allez les Bleus,” which had been coming in waves throughout the match, somehow even louder than before. We might actually win!
Then time slowly ticked down, tortuously. I swear it took at least a half-hour for the clock to go from 70 to 73 minutes. There was just too much time for Germany to come back. I somehow knew it would, though I tried hard to deny that gut feeling. I know from experience that you have to enjoy the times when a team is up against Germany, cherish it while it lasts, as I had done during the most riveting match of the 2014 Men’s World Cup, Algeria vs. Germany.
That the German comeback happened the way it did, with a questionable penalty call, was in a way slightly satisfying, since I knew this would nourish that beloved postgame sport of endlessly rewriting the match so that the referee is to blame. Sasic is my favorite player on the German team, and in a very, very abstracted way, I felt good for her that she scored another tournament goal, this one coming in the 84th minute.
I couldn’t help thinking about one of the things I find such a relief and joy about watching women’s soccer. In a men’s game, almost any of the referee’s decisions and incidents of physical contact we saw on Friday, some of them quite intense, would have led to a crowd of players around the referee, gesticulating and arguing, somehow believing that for the first time in the history of the sport the referee was going to change his or her mind. If this were the Copa America, there inevitably would have been a full-out brawl, lasting five or 10 minutes, people fighting then calming each other down, coaches getting involved.
I’d like some of the attitude from the women’s game to infuse the men’s game. You all know that this game is flawed in so many ways, and constantly unfair, and you have all profited from it as well as lost from it at one point or another. It is what it is, and that is why we love it. Raise your arms or eyebrows, pout a bit, argue the point for a few seconds, but then stop and move on. I didn’t come here to watch men push each other and argue. I came to watch soccer.
For me, Friday's game was the perfect embodiment of the sport. It kept moving and shifting, an endless flow of surprises, of hope and dread, of ebullient and exhilarating play, without the distraction of needless off-the-ball drama. You felt the energy and determination and love for the game exuding from the players. This was everything, and it was now.
One of my favorite players on Friday was the French substitute Hamraoui. She brought a brilliant energy to the pitch with a series of joyful, technical bursts forward. Then she got smashed in the nose, blood flowing down her face. She ran to the edge of the pitch and the medical staff sprayed water on her face before stuffing her nose to stop the bleeding. She was clearly desperate to just get back out and play, but when she motioned to be let back on, a FIFA sideline official stopped her, pointing to traces of blood on her shirt.
Seriously, she seemed to be saying, we’re trying to win the World Cup right now, there’s a corner kick and you’re telling me my shirt is dirty? This unfolded in front of the section where I was sitting, packed with rowdy French fans, who started yelling and booing at the FIFA official. Then, suddenly, a French substitute jumped up and started sprinting down the side of the pitch. A man had just run out of the tunnel to the locker rooms, holding an extra "Hamraoui" jersey. She pulled the bloodied one off, had trouble getting the new one on over her bleeding nose and then raced back out on the pitch.
• PHOTOS: Fans at the 2015 Women's World Cup
Was that the moment that made the difference? That and every other one, every second perhaps, accumulating into what ultimately happened: no French score, no German score, still level at 1–1 at the end of overtime. As we went into penalty kicks, I wasn’t sure I would actually survive. They were all perfect goals, until the brilliant Nadine Angerer stopped the final one from France. In an instant, everything stopped. The man in the "Zidane" shirt and I didn’t hesitate: We started jogging up the steps, needing to get out, needing to be anywhere but in that stadium.
But once I caught my breath outside, I felt oddly elated by the match. Going in, it was a matchup worthy of a final. You had the sense watching that whichever team won the match had a very good chance to go all the way and claim the trophy (although of course the U.S. still has something to say about that).
Both teams played at their absolute best, showcasing their style and strength, offering us the perfect example of what soccer can be, of what it should be. France, with its mix of veteran players and new stars, has struggled to gain the media attention it deserves, though Friday's game set a new record for viewership. The French are clearly now one of the great forces in global women’s soccer, an inspiration through their style of play, their grace and the moments of perfection they offer.
By the time I managed to fall asleep, I felt one thing: a massive debt of gratitude to the players on both teams who lit up the stadium on Friday, one pass at a time.