France Beats Germany to Reach Euro 2016 Final


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Antoine Griezmann, at top, scored twice on Thursday as France advanced to the Euro 2016 final.

Credit
Tolga Bozoglu/European Pressphoto Agency

MARSEILLE, France — They sang.

They danced, they chanted, they even — for some reason — did the Icelandic Thunderclap routine a few times. But mostly the French fans at the Stade Velodrome on Thursday just sang as one, long and loud and proud.

Sometimes it was the national anthem. Sometimes it was the chorus to “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. Sometimes it was just “Allez!” (roughly, Let’s Go!) over and over. In truth, it did not matter what they were singing.

On this night, in this moment, the fans wanted simply to join in. To make a difference. To matter. And they did.

Beneath a relentless, rambunctious cacophony, France defeated Germany, 2-0, in a semifinal of the European Championships. The French, who won the last two major tournaments they have hosted, will go for a third against Portugal on Sunday at the Stade de France outside Paris. Germany, the defending World Cup champion, will go home.

The Germans will rue injuries that cost them two starters (plus a suspension that ruled out one more), as well as an avalanche of missed opportunities and — in their minds, at least — a controversial referee’s decision that stunned them just before halftime.

The French, of course, will say otherwise. To them, they had just 35 percent possession but defended ferociously; they deserved the penalty kick awarded to them late in the first half, which they converted; and they capitalized when the German defense scrambled itself in front of goal.

Antoine Griezmann scored both goals for France. When he poked the second across the line after a flailing clearance by Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, a frisson of unadulterated euphoria pulsed through the stands. This was, by far, the most difficult test the French had faced in this tournament, and they flourished.

“We are like kids playing out here,” Griezmann said. “We know we have a whole nation behind us.”

The last time these teams met was Nov. 13 at the Stade de France, a match that will always be remembered for what happened outside — the terrorist attacks in St.-Denis and Paris — as opposed to anything that took place on the field. That night, Griezmann played while his sister, Maud, was inside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorists attacked with guns and grenades. It was only later, well after the match, that he learned she was one of the fortunate who escaped.

The specter of those attacks has lingered over this event from the beginning, as security around the country was increased exponentially. François Hollande, the French president, even visited the French team before its first match to talk about the situation.

Griezmann, recalling that meeting on Thursday, said the players understood that it was their job, their responsibility, to entertain their supporters, to give them verve and energy and excitement — to help the country move forward.

The team began with a dramatic victory over Romania in the tournament’s opening game. Then it won its preliminary round group. In the knockout rounds, it stormed back against Ireland in the round of 16, blitzed Iceland in the quarterfinal and here, on this steamy, sticky night, pushed over the world champions.

“There is happiness all over France tonight,” Manager Didier Deschamps said.

It was not always pretty. Germany, which beat France in the quarterfinals two years ago on its way to the World Cup title in Brazil, weathered a French surge after the opening whistle and dominated for nearly 40 minutes of the first half. Mesut Özil was slick in the midfield, as usual. Thomas Müller was threatening in front of goal. Jérôme Boateng, the sturdy defender, helped hem the French into their own half.

Yet there was no finish. France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was ready when called on — he made a fine stop to deny Emre Can after about 15 minutes — but the Germans also lacked polish when it mattered most. The final cross was just a bit too high, the outstretched leg a bit too short.

A 0-0 score at halftime seemed reasonable and both sides appeared happy to accept it. Only then France earned a corner kick a few minutes before the interval and, as the ball swung in, Germany’s captain, Bastian Schweinsteiger, challenged for it with his arms raised. When it deflected off Patrice Evra’s head and caromed directly into Schweinsteiger’s right arm, the referee, Nicola Rizzoli, pointed to the penalty spot.

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Antoine Griezmann, center right, has scored six goals for France in the European Championships, which is twice as many as the six other players who are tied for second.

Credit
Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Was it a good call? Current guidance on handling directs officials to penalize players if, among other things, they “make themselves bigger,” and Schweinsteiger seemed to do that. The Germans, nonetheless, were incensed; the French, naturally, were ecstatic.

Griezmann stepped up. A little more than a month ago he missed a crucial penalty kick as his club team, Atlético Madrid, was beaten in a shootout in the Champions League final by Real Madrid. This time, however, there was no hiccup. His left-footed shot was pure.

“Everybody was shocked,” Germany Manager Joachim Löw said. “I had to calm the players down in the dressing room at halftime.”

He added: “And then, after, it was difficult.”

The second half brought more chances, but more frustration for Germany. Toni Kroos had his run cut off. Julian Draxler curled a shot just wide. Joshua Kimmich saw his powerful drive ricochet off the post.

Meanwhile, Greizmann slipped in front of the German goal just as Paul Pogba went into a dazzling dance on the left side of the penalty area. Shucking off a defender, Pogba floated a cross that Neuer could only bat to the ground. Griezmann, who stands just 5 feet 9 inches, pounced, poked and — after the ball rippled the net — preened in front of the delirious fans.

“He’s our little man who gives us something more,” forward Olivier Giroud said.

Löw said that the Germans were unlucky, that France was not the better team. Deschamps did not necessarily disagree, saying that the Germans made France suffer. Still, he said, it made no difference.

At this level, all that matters is the result. And so, after the final whistle, the French players went to each end of the stadium, joined hands in a line and, as a unit, offered gratitude to their supporters. The world champions had been eliminated. The final was in sight. The dream was ever closer.

On this night, the combination had been unbeatable: the French players gave their hearts. The French fans, their throats.

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