Monday, June 15, 2009

Cocorico! A Good Weekend for French Sports

Here's a warning right off the bat: if you're not into Euro-type sports at all, just stop reading now. There won't be much "soccer" talk in this post, but there will be rugby and non-NASCAR auto racing.

OK, with that established, let's move on. Back in the late-'90s, France had a pretty good sporting run. The football team won the World Cup at home in 1998 and then backed up that victory by winning Euro 2000. The rugby team, my personal favorite, won back-to-back Grand Slams in the old 5 Nations in 1997 and 1998 and then stunned overwhelming favorite New Zealand in the semi-final of the 1999 Rugby World Cup before falling with honor to Australia in the final.

After that, though, sports success became more evasive for the Euro version of the red, white and blue. The football team bombed at the 2002 World Cup and then broke the nation's heart by losing on penalties to Italy in the 2006 final. The rugby team managed excellent Grand Slams, by then in the 6 Nations, in 2002 and 2004 but disappointed by going out to arch-rival England in the semi-final of both the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. Fernando Alonso (Spanish, actually) and Renault (definitely French) provided some excitement with Formula 1 titles a few years back, but the French football side in Euro 2008 was shocking drab and the rugby team fell off a cliff in 2008 and 2009.

So, this weekend just passed, it might not have been much compared to years past, but two victories will surely lift Gallic spirits. First, Peugeot managed to dominate the 24 Heures du Mans, or, as we call it, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This race, so deeply embedded in the French sporting ethos, had been property of the Germans at Audi for almost a decade. This past weekend, however, Peugeot managed to win the first and second spots in the main competition and restore French racing to at least one of its past thrones. (It seemed to make little difference that the drivers of the winning car included no Frenchmen, and--gasp!--even an English bloke.) French pride was evident on Sunday afternoon.

Then, out of nowhere, a French rugby side expected to be a sacrificial lamb at the sword of the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand managed to pull off a(nother) shocking victory--on Kiwi soil. Many observers in New Zealand had criticized the French for picking a weakened side for their tour of the islands, but a spirited defensive performance saw France take home a test match victory in one of the world's most remote areas for the first time in 15 years. There's another test match in NZ this coming weekend, followed by a tilt in Australia, so les Bleus could very well still end up on the negative side of the victory ledger.

But any victory in NZ is precious, and this one, following some very nasty sentiments from the world's preeminent rugby nation, must taste as sweet as...well, as sweet at France's quarter-final win over the All Blacks in the 2007 World Cup. But given that French rugby seemed in disarray after a disastrous Heineken Cup season and a shameful 6 Nations in 2009, last Saturday's win on NZ dirt might very well be the sweetest Bleu triumph in years. Hopefully it's the start of something French rugby can build on--but for now, it's a point of light in what has been a relatively dark few years for French sports.

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