World Cup: France-Germany rivalry isn't just about the wars

To be sure, the two world wars are a part of France's psyche when it comes to its on-field rivalry with Germany. But memories of a little match from 1982 also plays a role.

Remy de la Mauviniere/AP
French soccer fans celebrate in front of Paris City Hall after France scored the first goal in their 2-0 win over Nigeria in the World Cup Monday. Fans will gather again on Friday to see their team play rival Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals.

In the minds of many French soccer fans, the ghosts of the past inform the fierce rivalry between France and Germany's powerhouse national teams, who meet today in the World Cup quarterfinals. But those ghosts may not be the ones you'd expect.

“We hate the German team,” says one French friend. “And that goes back to….” I begin to ask. “The war,” he says, matter-of-fact.

“That, and 1982," he adds.

No, 1982 isn't a reference to some hidden chapter of one of the world wars. Rather, it refers to the infamous match between the two teams during the 1982 World Cup semifinals in Sevilla, Spain. West Germany won in a shootout, but not before German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher broke the jaw and ribs of French player Patrick Battiston. Recently Mr. Battiston told Agence France-Presse: “To this day, I have a cracked vertebra and broken teeth.”

And also to this day, the French feel wounded by that defeat, after their side was leading 3-1 before Germany caught up and ultimately won in a shootout. The 32-year-old match is being fiercely discussed on nightly news this week, the talk at water coolers across France.

As The Associated Press sports writer Jerome Pugmire wrote in a recent piece: “The defeat in '82 is arguably the most painful defeat in the history of French football.”

The rivalry between France and Germany runs deeper than soccer, of course. The memories of World War I and II are fading, but they’ve been in sharp relief this summer, as the 70th anniversary of D-Day was celebrated on June 6, and the centenary of World War I is being commemorated across Europe. Decades later, one German at the German cemetery in Normandy told me that he felt, as a German this summer, like he “was at a party in which he wasn’t invited.”

In Paris, that point is driven further. The World Cup quarterfinal match between France and Germany will be projected on a big screen at the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s city hall, Friday evening. As it’s airing, a photo exhibit commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from Nazi Germany will be on display. The screen is also being set up where an outdoor exhibit mapping the trench camps of World War I just came down.

Not 'talking about revenge'

Even in today’s Europe, the two nations – the founders of the European Union, and whose relationship has always been central to the institution – retain a rivalry. Germany’s economy has powered ahead, while France's has languished.

But this Friday it’s the skills on the field that count. And this game might be a moment for revenge. France has emerged as one of the most solid teams of the 2014 World Cup, and could definitely beat the German squad, even though French coach Didier Deschamps said Friday’s match has nothing to do with the past.  

"My first [memories] are of this '82 World Cup. It was a cruel ending, but it was more than 30 years ago, so we're not going to start talking about revenge," the coach, who was 14 at the time of that game, said. "It was a big moment emotionally for those players, a sad one.”

But does it have relevance for today’s competition? “They weren't born then. I'm going to talk to them about what? If I talk to them about 2006, OK, but you have to live in your own era," Coach Deschamps said. “What's important is what happens on Friday.”

Many French fans agree. “It’s going to be a tough match,” says Jeremy, who works in heating installation while on lunch break with his friends in Paris the day before the game. Whatever the French might feel about Germany, he says – be it about the war, or today’s politics – Friday it’s “about football."

“And football is just for fun.”

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