RIO DE JANEIRO -- Look who just ambled up from the basement and into the quarterfinals: It's that wacko World Cup uncle, France. You never know when he'll turn up, but actually you do kind of know: It's every other quadrennium, meaning Russia 2018 will be horrid.
France soared in 1998, disintegrated in 2002, soared in 2006, imploded in 2010 and has soared in 2014, and there's another laugh about that. In the four days between last November 15 and 19, France had earned a widespread certainty that it would not make it to Brazil. It was done. After a cold Friday night in Kiev -- and that does sound cold -- France trailed Ukraine 2-0 heading back to the second leg in Paris. Derision held sway among a fan base unusually good at derision. L'Equipe asked, "Is this the worst France team in history?" A Le Parisien poll combed the forecasts of 23,000, with doom winning on 84 percent. No European team had ever rebounded from a 2-0, first-leg deficit. Even better, when asked if they would support France regardless, a hardy 16 percent said yes.
You couldn't really blame them if they can't figure out what their team means.
First, thousands of French and at least some Americans had one of the best times in all of life on Sunday, July 12, 1998, into Monday, July 13, 1998. Anyone walking the Rue de Rivoli and the Champs Elysees that midnight could conduct an impromptu study of personal physiology: Yes, goose bumps really can sustain themselves intermittently for six hours.
Four years after missing the World Cup via a stultifying home loss to Bulgaria, France had won the entire World Cup, at home. Frenchmen brought toddlers out to look on the off chance they might remember something. Brazilians brought drums to help France celebrate even though Brazil had taken a shocking 3-0 defeat in the final. The only fright came once you got close to l'Arc de Triomphe, when the crowd became so thick it would lift scarily you off your feet for five seconds at a time.
Having won Euro 2000, France went into the 2002 World Cup and lost to Senegal (prompting Paris-based Senegalese to drive around the 18th Arrondisement honking horns), drew 0-0 with Uruguay and lost to Denmark, scoring zero goals and grabbing one point. In 2006, the great Zinedine Zidane shoved France all the way to the final, possibly a feat more impressive than 1998. And in 2010, there was just your average everyday disgrace of a player mutiny.
Of course, France won 3-0 over Ukraine at the Stade de France that Tuesday night last November, won the aggregate by 3-2 and turned up in Brazil where a lot of us have spent a lot of time forgetting it's here. It's a whisper of a run, almost as if FIFA slotted it into the quarterfinals on account of having the best city in the world.
Of all the big-country nationalities along the throbbing heart of the World Cup, Copacabana, the French presence seems the smallest. That's unless you count the Belgians (10 million to France's 66 million), and the two Belgian fans who walked the boardwalk last Saturday when some Brazilians enthusiastically asked to be photographed with them, presumably because it's a rare "get" to be photographed with Belgians.
As a smattering headed for the beach to watch France-Nigeria on Monday, one French guy carried a French flag and another a cigarette. The small throng included maybe three flags and five painted faces, one painted so murkily that he appeared to have been bitten by Luis Suarez. There were more Americans and Colombians, just for two. Off to the side, a 21-year-old Frenchman held up his GoPro for a selfie and did a form of a broadcast, hugely knowledgeable, shouting his observations because GoPros kind of flunk on sound.
He was five years old when France won in 1998, and he watched while seated on his grandfather's knee. He remembers both that his grandfather had always disliked football, and that his grandfather then slapped his other knee in joy upon France's triumph. He hopes to see something big with France now that he has gained the consciousness of the double-digit years and, like many, he develops a bemused expression talking about this French team.
It's that way with loony uncles.
There's a funny little mystery ongoing with France and it's similar to the one ongoing with Colombia. Injury cost France Franck Ribery, voted the third-best player in the world last winter, just as injury cost Colombia its star Radamel Falcao, who plays in Monaco. For France, you can throw in that its esteemed manager, Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 team, controversially opted to leave behind another top player, Manchester City's Samir Nasri.
Can it help sometimes to shed stars? Does improved concentration ensue?
Gaze around France's roster, though, and this whole thing does make sense. The starting 11 on Monday had the two Real Madrid guys, the two Arsenal guys, the two Paris Saint-Germain guys, and the 21-year-old Juventus guy Paul Pogba, whose header finally pushed France ahead of Nigeria. It looks finely balanced and plenty formidable. Anything from here is a success. It's 2018 that's going to bring untold catastrophe.