At Language Schools, French fans cheer on their team
MIDDLEBURY — Room 216 in Middlebury College’s Bicentennial Hall is a typical lecture space, rows of seats tucked away on the ground floor of the college’s immense science building.
But this past Tuesday afternoon the room was briefly transformed into a raucous, patriotic cheering section thanks to the alignment of two temporary phenomena: Middlebury’s Summer Language Schools and the FIFA World Cup.
Around 40 students and faculty from the program’s School of French gathered in Room 216 to watch the semifinal match between France and Belgium, live-streamed and projected onto a screen at the front of the classroom.
“It’s a fratricidal match,” said Professor Charles Frankel of the showdown between two French-speaking nations.
Frankel, who is French-American, said his allegiances lay firmly with the French squad. And while some whispered of a few Belgians in attendance, their presence wasn’t visible — if they were there in Room 216, they were vastly outnumbered and out-cheered by supporters of Les Bleus, as the French side is known.
This viewing party may have taken place on American soil, but you wouldn’t have known it from the conversation — not a word of English could be heard in the room, the attendees being collectively bound by Middlebury’s strict language pledge. All match-watchers, students and faculty alike, spoke only the language of the nations that were battling on Russian turf for a berth in the World Cup final.
As the French players on the screen stood for the singing of La Marseillaise, the Middlebury delegation rose to its feet. Faculty, mostly hailing from abroad, sung with fervor, as the mostly-American students mumbled along dutifully.
Some of the students were there more for curiosity than out of a love for the sport the rest of the world calls football.
“Since France is in the semifinal, I wanted to watch,” said Sarah, an American studying for a master’s degree at the French School. “It’s really interesting, and I have nothing else to do.”
Before long, the opening whistle blew.
“C’est parti!” cried the attendees, many of whom were, in fact, serious fans of the French footballers.
“I’ve seen almost all the matches since the beginning,” said Professor Christophe Lagier. “I’m very tense — did anyone notice where the defibrillator is?”
French School employee Guillaume Gibert also made a coronary reference.
“I’m hoping with all my heart that France will win,” Gibert said.
They weren’t the only ones feeling anxious. Throughout the scoreless first half, the Middlebury crowd was on edge, inhaling sharply each time Belgium threatened, and shouting in frustration as France bungled their offensive chances.
“Give it to him!”
At halftime, viewers said the quality of play had lived up to expectations.
“It’s on fire!” Gibert said. “The Belgians, they’re tough.”
Pascal Somé, a professor from Burkina Faso who said he’d cheer for France until his home country qualifies one day, said it was anybody’s match at that point.
“It’s difficult to say who will win, because anything can happen,” said Somé.
Finally, in the 51st minute, a breakthrough: On a corner kick the French centerback Samuel Umtiti headed a ball past the diving Belgian goalkeeper, sending Room 216 into an uproar.
Less than an hour later, it was over: France prevailed 1-0, and the Middlebury crowd patted backs, shook hands, and looked forward to the tournament final.
“Sunday, 11 o’clock!” called Lagier as he exited.
For the French nationals in attendance, the experience of watching their country triumph from abroad was a surprisingly rewarding one.
“It’s actually cool, because if you’re in France, sometimes you might watch the match by yourself, in your house,” Gibert said. “But here, it’s full of people, we talk about it all the time.”
Connor Owens, the French School employee who organized the tournament watch parties, was impressed with the enthusiasm.
“I’m European, and I thought that soccer in the United States wasn’t the same,” Owens said. “But there are a lot of people who follow it closely, a lot of people at every match. And the students like it a lot, because they come cheer, they learn new words and vocabulary. It’s as if you were watching a match with your buddies.”
Then the crowd filed out, and Room 216 became, again, just a lecture hall in Vermont — at least it was until Sunday morning’s final, when oddsmakers said the viewers should have been happy again: France was favored over first-time finalist Croatia.
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