Dimitri Payet the hero as France's dream begins

France 2 Romania 1: Fewer than seven months have passed since three suicide bombers attacked the magnificent Stade de France on that desperate night in November.

Some 6km south into the heart of Paris, the Bataclan Theatre remains closed. Its famous technicolor facade remains visible above the hoardings but it is a place undoubtedly darkened by terror.

Now, not for the first time, Paris has turned to football to provide a vehicle for hope and unity amid such suffering. Appropriate, then, that the brightest beacon last night was the Stade de France as Les Bleus opened the summer’s European Championships.

Of course the police presence in the aftermath of the attacks is extreme. Almost every road surrounding the stadium was filled with riot vans containing policemen and women ready to deal with any disturbance.

And now, unlike November, those without tickets or accreditation cannot even get anywhere near the stadium before being turned away by armed police.

In the shadow of the arena stands the two-tiered McDonald’s, where the third bomb was detonated, around which squadrons of officers patrolled.

This time, fans from both countries safely convened, ate, laughed and sang. Just 20m across the road, where the bomb exploded, you can still see the damage caused to the area by the nuts and bolts expelled in the blast.

Amid such tangible reminders of the horror, sport can seem insignificant but this is a nation which has a history of finding strength in football. Back in 1998, when France won the World Cup for the first and only time in its history, it was seen as the dawn of a new era for the country.

Three years earlier, there was a trio of bombings in Paris by the so-called Armed Islamic Group as the Algerian civil war spilled into France. But then, in the summer of 98, Les Bleus won the World Cup final here at the Stade de France with Zidane, who has an Algeria-born father, scoring twice in the 3-0 win.

But that small golden trophy did not bring with it all the hopes of a unified society. Racial tension among black, white and arab still exists across France, not least in its capital. But last night it was once again a multiracial France which lined up against a stubborn and hard-to-beat Romania.

The front page of football daily L’Equipe yesterday carried the headline ‘Refaire l’histoire’, which translates as rewrite history, the inference being that winning this summer’s tournament, beneath this very same roof, can finally fulfill the hopes encouraged back in 98.

Didier Deschamps was the captain then, he’s the manager now. France started that summer 7/1 maybes, they started here as 3/1 favourites.

But they began this match like a team with the weight of a nation on their shoulders. They should have gone behind in the fourth minute but Bogdan Stancu somehow hit straight at Hugo Lloris from three yards out. It was a wake-up call they needed in a half they went on to dominate.

Antoine Griezmann, the talented Atletico Madrid forward, was the man on the pitch touched most heavily by the Paris attacks as his sister had been inside the Bataclan but managed to escape unharmed that night.

He will be central for France should they go all the way this summer but he was guilty of wasting two good chances, one of which hit the post, before half time. So too was Olivier Giroud, who completed just two passes in the first half — and one of them was the kick-off.

He made amends 12 minutes after the interval, nodding home Dimitri Payet’s cross. The West Ham wizard had watched the Arsenal striker head two of his pinpoint crosses wide in the first half but his fellow Londoner made it third time lucky.

That should have been that but former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra lazily clipped Bogdan Stanciu as he made a 64th-minute charge into the area. And, when Hungarian referee Viktor Kassal correctly pointed to the spot, Stancu made no mistake from 12 yards.

It looked as though there would be no dream start for the host nation, until Payet conjured up a goal to unite any nation. The 29-year-old, born on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, speared an incredible 25-yard strike into the top corner in the 89th minute to get France’s campaign off to a winning start.

He was in tears when he was substituted off during stoppage time in what will be one of the enduring images of a tournament that was not two hours old. Never mind rewrite history, it’s time for Les Bleus to make their own.

FRANCE:

Lloris; Sagna, Rami, Koscielny, Evra; Pogba (Martial 77), Kante, Matuidi; Griezmann (Coman 66), Giroud, Payet (Sissoko 90).

ROMANIA:

Tatarusanu; Sapunaru, Grigore, Chiriches, Rat; Pintilii, Hoban, Stanciu (Chipciu 71); Stancu, Andone (Alibec 61), Popa (Torje 82).

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