This was the night when France began to heal before our very eyes, a night when La Marseillaise was sung louder than it has ever been sung, a night when Antoine Griezmann became a national hero — and when Les Bleus dramatically and deservedly reached the final of Euro 2016.
Didier Deschamps men, who began the year still in pain — along with their fellow countrymen — following the bombings in Paris in November 2015, have taken a huge step to helping a nation come to terms with those terrible memories in what has been a remarkable campaign in the European Championships.
Two goals here from Griezmann, taking his tally to six in the tournament already, were enough to beat Germany 2-0 in Marseille and clinch a place against Portugal in the final in Paris on Sunday night.
And oh how the French public celebrated — giving Griezmann a standing ovation as the left the field in the dying seconds and then letting their emotions spiral into the warm summer air as the final whistle blew.
“It’s a whole group effort. It’s thanks to the group we’re in the final and we’re going to make the most of tonight,” Griezmann said.
There was already a special atmosphere inside Marseille’s impressively refurbished Stade Velodrome for a match that would grace any final, even before Deschamp’s heroes took it to another level.
The game had added meaning, too, because this was the same fixture being staged at the Stade de France last November when three suicide bombers struck outside the ground and further bombs in central Paris left 123 dead.
As France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris admitted before kick-off those kind of events can never truly be forgotten but France’s new togetherness and national pride, given an extra dimension by their football team, was on show on the south coast and it made for a passionate, dramatic and at times controversial night.
Germany will look back on a penalty given for a Bastian Schweinsteiger handball on the stroke of half time which was harsh to to say the least.
But France had the momentum here nevertheless, even if Germany had more of the ball, and they certainly had the greater threat up front where the absence of injured Mario Gomez cost the Germans dear.
German coach Joachim Low played Thomas Muller, who has now ended the tournament without a single goal, up front in Gomez’s place, included Schweinsteiger despite an injury scare and chose Emre Can in midfield with Sami Khedira also missing; but in the end his team couldn’t find a breakthrouigh.
In a thunderous atmosphere, it was France who started at a frightening pace, producing an absolutely stunning move after seven minutes when Griezmann and Matuidi swapped clever flicks before the former saw his well-struck effort saved by Manuel Neuer.
Griezmann was by far the most dangerous player on the pitch but as the half wore on Germany took control, enjoying 64% possession and being denied three times by the outstanding Lloris.
All that worked counted for nothing, however, when referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded a hugely dubious penalty for handball by Schweinsteiger as the Manchester United player jumped with Patrice Evra.
Admittedly Schweinsteiger’s arm was raised, but he was also looking the other way as he challenged the France full-back and not even his team-mates — or the crowd who had no idea a penalty had been given — claimed any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, Griezmann showed nerves of steel to put the penalty away and the roar which greeted his goal had to be heard to be believed.
His effort also gave France added impetus in the second half. Les Bleus had played some delightful football in spurts in the early stages, with Griezmann a constant menace, but they also allowed Germany to dictate the pace of play and gave the ball away in dangerous areas far too often.
Giroud, denied by a last-gasp block from Benedikt Howedes in the first half, wasted another excellent chance after the break when he was through on goal, but Germany gradually began to run out of ideas, not helped by an injury to Boateng which saw him replaced after 62 minutes.
They were 2-0 down when Paul Pogba produced an outrageous moment of skill to tease and beat Shodran Mustafi on the edge of the area in the 72nd minute — and although Neuer got his hand to the midfielder’s cross, Griezmann was on hand to force the ball home. Germany, by this time feeling the entire world was against them, claimed Giroud had fouled Neuer in the process — but they were clutching at straws and when Joshua Kimmich curled an effort against the post with Lloris beaten it felt like nothing was going to go their way.
Lloris made two more excellent saves in the final moments as Germany threw everything they had at the situation. But this just had to be France’s night and what a special one it was — both for football and for the country.
Neuer 7; Kimmich 7, Boateng 6 (Mustafi 62; 5), Howedes 7, Hector 6; Can 6 (Gotze 69; 6), Schweintsteiger 7 (Sane 79; 6); Ozil 6, Kroos 7, Draxler 6; Muller 6.
Lloris 8; Sagna 7, Koscielny 7, Umtiti 7, Evra 7; Pogba 7, Matuidi 8; Sissoko 6, Griezmann 9 (Cabaye 90), Payet 7 (Kante 71; 6); Giroud 6 (Gignac 79; 6)
Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)
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