After six weeks of breathing nothing but the foul fumes of countless Gauloises and Gitanes, there is nothing like a breath of English countryside air to clear the mind.
But even when all the secondhand cigarette smoke has blown away, one fact remains evident: France absolutely deserved its World Cup victory.
A week has passed since midfielder Didier Deschamps held the trophy aloft at the Stade de France in Saint-Etienne. The French are settling back into their normal and not-so-normal pursuits, while the rest of the soccer world is contemplating just how France achieved its victory.
There might even be some lessons here for the United States.
But first, the destruction of a few myths.
* France did not have a coach with vast international experience, either as a player or coach. Aime Jacquet, 56, who stepped down on Wednesday to become “technical director of national soccer,” was an average player who represented his country only twice. He took over the national team in January 1994.
He promised to build a side that would win the World Cup and said he would then retire. He did exactly that.
* France did not have a team with years of experience and players with a hundred or more caps (or international matches). Of the 22 players on the roster, only Deschamps and defender Laurent Blanc went into the tournament with more than 60 international games to their credit.
Half the roster had played fewer than 20 matches for the national team when the World Cup began.
* France had the home-field advantage, but given the lukewarm response of the public, this did not count for much. French fans seem to cheer their teams after victories, not to victory.
* France did not have the benefit of an easy path through the tournament. To win the Cup it had to defeat, among others, 1992 European champion Denmark, 1996 African champion South Africa, three-time World Cup winner Italy, Croatia, which finished third in the tournament, and four-time World Cup winner and defending champion Brazil.
* France did not get any breaks from the referees. It lost midfield inspiration Zinedine Zidane for two games to a red-card suspension; it lost Blanc, the team captain, for the final because of a red card, and it lost fellow defender Marcel Desailly in the final because of two yellow cards.
But France still won the world championship. How? Or better yet, why?
On the surface, the answers are simple. France was unbeaten in its seven games. It scored more goals (15) and allowed fewer goals (two) than any team. But the real answer lies deeper than that.
“We wanted to win this World Cup, we didn’t just want to be finalists,” Jacquet said. “The victory was deserved. We were very demanding with the players and they have responded in a truly professional manner.
“None of this has been easy for us. We have had to overcome all the obstacles. . . . Overall, we have managed to create a real spirit of community with the players, a lot of close understanding, strength and generosity. . . . The confidence we had built up has continued to grow. We are proud of everything we have achieved, and my feeling is that this group was completely united.”
It showed. The players were both focused on the job at hand and relaxed, a difficult combination to achieve. Jacquet also made superb use of the talent at his disposal. In all, 20 of the 22 team members played, with backup goalkeepers Bernard Lama and Lionel Charbonnier the only exceptions.
But even they felt totally a part of the team.
“Tonight we fulfilled every schoolboy’s dream,” Lama said after Brazil had been beaten, 3-0, in the final. “The history of French and world football has changed forever. . . . It feels wonderful to be a part of it all.”
Throughout the tournament, in fact, players talked about the harmony in the French camp.
“All 22 of us are pulling together as if we were a club side,” said midfielder Emmanuel Petit. “We can tell that everyone wants to be out on the pitch, and it’s hardest for those who are on the bench.
“After each victory, the atmosphere in the dressing room is wonderful. This team possesses a wonderful joie de vivre and a will to win as well.”
From Deschamps: “I’m proud of this team. We have a really strong team spirit and I admire the self-belief of each individual player.”
And from forward Thierry Henry: “We really are a squad of 22 players. There are no substitutes.”
Much was also made of the divergent backgrounds of the French players. It was said to “reflect the new France.” Zidane, for instance, is of Algerian descent. Defender Christian Karembeu is from New Caledonia in the Pacific. Forward Youri Djorkaeff traces his line back to Armenia. Defender Lilian Thuram is from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. Desailly was born in Ghana. David Trezeguet was raised in Argentina.
But regardless of race or ethnic background, once the French team stepped on the field, the players were all “Les Bleus.” There was strength in diversity.
Strength could also be drawn from the club backgrounds of the players, all of them European-based. Nine played for French teams, namely Olympique Marseille, Metz, AS Monaco and Auxerre.
The other 13 played for clubs in England, Germany, Italy and Spain, namely Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham United, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus of Turin, Parma, AS Roma, Sampdoria and Real Madrid.
In other words, the overwhelming majority of the players had experience with top-flight clubs, had won championships and cups in the past and knew exactly what it takes to win.
Which is why, for the next four years, they can call themselves world champions.