Mark Steel: View From The Terraces (or a bar in Lens, the 'French Barnsley')

Chatting up girls or arguing over a dog - the French way of watching the final
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The Independent Online

In the backstreet bar here in northern France, they stared at the screen, then the ceiling, then each other. Not sent off - not Zidane, the nation's role model. It was like being at your Dad's retirement party, then, halfway through his speech, he inexplicably drops his trousers and does a slash all over the sandwiches.

Lens was the ideal venue to watch the final, a small working-class town, a French Barnsley perhaps, with no Arc de Triomphe but it does have a Woolworths. Absolutely everyone went out to watch; teenagers in second-hand cardigans with pushchairs, huge blokes in shorts who drink from enormous polystyrene beakers through a straw, giggling girls with their eyelids painted red, white and blue - this was the night out for people who never go out to watch sport, and for people who never go out.

The bar made a special cocktail for the occasion - a liqueur mixed with orange squash and ice. A woman of about 60 was handed some in a plastic cup and said the French for: "Ooh, my goodness, we're posh tonight."

An hour before kick-off, every car was tooting, so that by some magic of science the toots made a complex harmony, as if there was a conductor somewhere screaming: "Bass ... let me hear your toot soar, oh that's divine." Then fireworks. Not a corporate display, but bangers and jumping jacks and rockets casually tossed in the street, the way Frenchmen in black-and-white films discard used matches. And when a banger exploded so close the sparks went into my beer, everyone sighed as if to say: "Aah, how pretty."

More disconcerting was the way in which they hadn't all learnt the rules for watching sport, including the tip that to get the most out of the game you do have to actually watch the screen, rather than chat and face in the opposite direction. Two teenage boys were chatting up a pair of shy girls, and I had an urge to yell "Oi, your team's in the final of the World bloody Cup, you can't spend it on the pull."

Then Zidane scored his penalty - with utter Zidanity - as if to say, "Why knock ze ball a long way over ze line, when three centimetres will do, and saves so much effort?"

Now the singing started but, after Italy equalised, they started chatting again, and at one point three people were talking on their mobile phones. I wondered whether the analysis on French television at half-time would go: "Well Pierre, what did you make of Materazzi's equaliser?"

"To be honest, Robert, I missed it, as my sister rang to say her cat's not well."

But this was a side effect of the game attracting those who normally wouldn't bother. And in the second half, as Thierry Henry started running at the defence, even the novices were drawn into the shrieking, the throaty roars, and the table-thumping. Toddlers stopped strolling through the chairs, their eyes bulged, and they sensed an imminent moment of drama. The man with the mobile screeched "Allez les Bleus" and, by the time Zidane did a circus trick with the ball, the bar had been transformed into a unit, going up, down and sideways as one. Even the ones who didn't know much about football appeared to know more than whoever said: "No one will mind how we play as long as we win."

At the start of extra time a woman came in carrying a poodle. She exchanged some cross words with the barman, then left. Had she bought it off him the week before and discovered that it wasn't as curly as he'd promised? Whatever, it will remain one of the mysteries of the 2006 World Cup.

The bar gathered itself for one last surge, everyone by now chewing or clutching another part of themselves, breathing heavily and willing, gesturing, contorting to help convert the French dominance into a goal. Instead, at the point of maximum concentration, Zidane seemed to think he was a bull and tried to gore Materazzi. As the men gazed at the ceiling, the women, perhaps more in touch with their emotions, managed high-pitched squeals with their hands over their mouths. "Pourquoi?" muttered everyone, which means "What were you thinking, you madman?" - and even losing wouldn't be sadder than this.

But then they had to lose as well. On poxy penalties. What way is that to decide the winner of the whole tournament? They might as well arrange a miniature version of Celebrity Love Island with the two managers, and the World Cup goes to whoever gets voted off last.

The moment the fifth Italian penalty went in, the bars emptied, and people wandered off bedraggled. Because Trezeguet hit the bar, instead of partying and tooting, guzzling orange squash-based cocktails and sweeping the city in celebrations that would become the toddlers' earliest memories, they meandered and shrugged with a certain c'est la vie. The town's Italians roared round the streets, leaning out of car windows waving flags. The French ignored them, except for chucking handfuls of lit bangers at them. But that seemed almost a friendly greeting, as if in Lens, when your auntie comes round, it's bad manners not to kiss her on the cheek and shove a lit Catherine wheel down her dress.

But half an hour later, the French decided to party anyway. As if they'd changed their mind, thousands swarmed into the square, tooting and singing and exploding things as if they'd won. Rockets were launched at all angles, and there was a small-town mini-riot in which three vans of riot police arrived, by which time the French and Italians were hugging each other. Maybe the rule is it's only when you can celebrate losing a final that you deserve to be in one.

So was the World Cup a success? For the Nikes and McDonald's, the answer lies in whether the sums they've accumulated are as vast as those projected. If your criteria for success depend on the England team's prowess, it was a failure.

But every person I'm aware of who took part in the festivity has declared they enjoyed a glorious experience. The word "carnival" would be misleading, because there were no official floats or "traditional local dancing" or grass skirts. Instead, everyone was grubby and sweaty and running out of money and everyone got drunk and shared their dinner and rode on a tram and screamed and gulped with people from countries they knew nothing about, and everyone was smiling and not because the customers spend more if you smile. The World Cup was a success because it was a wonderful celebration of life.