Even before Dimitri Payet took aim from the edge of the box to send France to a scantly deserved 2-1 victory over Romania, he had been his side’s outstanding figure.
The West Ham man, who has enjoyed a stratospheric rise since moving to England from Marseille last summer, had been the hub of France’s best attacking moments, showing both vision and skill in setting up the vast majority of his side’s chances.
Antoine Griezmann was unable to profit, on this occasion, from his class, while Olivier Giroud belatedly opened the scoring from a corner delivered by the outstanding playmaker.
His salvo at the end, however, brought celebrations that the Stade de France has rarely seen since Les Bleus last played a major tournament game here – in 1998 when they defeated Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup.
Gathering the ball on the edge of the box, he shuffled it to his left foot before bending a glorious shot into the top corner of the net.The strike was of the class that has seen his reputation skyrocket over the course of the last year, and it provided France with the lift off that they so desperately needed in this competition. Such was the emotion the player felt, he was brought to tears as he was substituted to a standing ovation soon after.
And when asked about the moment after the match, he told reporters: “There was stress and pressure. If someone told me that it went like that tonight, I wouldn’t have believed it. That emotion came out in the goal.”
It was a goal that was necessary, too. Didier Deschamps’ side had ceded their lead when Bogdan Stancu converted from the penalty spot after Patrice Evra made an ill-judged challenge on Nicolae Stanciu in his penalty box.If Payet’s intervention was deserved for an outstanding individual display, it was not the result that France necessarily merited after they had been matched by their opponents for long spells of the game.
Given that there are only five places between the sides in FIFA’s latest rankings, Romania, who had the best defensive record in qualifying, might have felt they were rather lightly written off prior to kick off.
Certainly, Anghel Iordanescu’s side went about their play in an organised and tactically astute manner, but they were not simply content to act as defensive stoppers. Their coach has an unusual superstition in that he does not like the team coach to park in reverse when coming into the stadium, and there was no hint of his side parking the bus on the field at all.
Although Griezmann hit the post in the first half and had a shot narrowly wide, it was the visitors who were the better side and merited going in level. Hugo Lloris had been forced to make an outstanding save from Stancu after a couple of minutes, and Romania deserved to be level at the break. Paul Pogba, the poster boy for France coming into the tournament, was too individualistic and was replaced after the Romania equaliser, having been outshone by the excellent N’Golo Kante in the hosts’ midfield.
After the leveller, it seemed there would be no recovery for France. But matches of this type are often decided – if they are at all - by moments of true individual brilliance. Payet’s killer blow with seconds to go was certainly a contribution that fell into that bracket.
France might not have had the style throughout that they wished, yet at that crucial moment, Payet provided it brilliantly. Their tournament is now well and truly under way.