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Lyon is wearing the World Cup final lightly

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What do you do when your team is out, your city is melting, and there’s a still a World Cup final to host?

England v USA: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

All World Cup finals are historic; it is in their nature. But this one, at the Parc Olympique in Lyon, has a little extra resonance. It may be England’s fans who sing about football coming home, but France is actually living that dream.

For this is the home of Olympique Lyonnais, and their women’s team is the best in the world. Indeed, they might be the best team in the world at any sport, relatively speaking: holders of thirteen French titles in a row, winners of the last three Champions Leagues, losers of just two league games in nine seasons.

Beyond the women’s honours, Lyon are an assertion of a principle: the women’s team are given the same facilities and status — though not the same wages — as the men’s. OL players comprise a decent chunk of the French national side, serve as the captains of Germany and Norway, and striker Ada Hegerberg is the best player in the world. Where better to have the final than here, the winningest and most egalitarian place that women’s football has to offer?

Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona Women - UEFA Women’s Champions League Final Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It was the flags, I realised. All the flags that should have been hanging from the windows. They weren’t there. Over the course of a week in Lyon, as I’ve walked and bussed, trammed and trained around the city, I think I’ve seen three tricolors dangling out of houses.

As a tourist heading to a World Cup, you have certain hopes about the place you’re going. You’d like it to be an interesting place with welcoming people and excellent food, of course; all the usual stuff. But more, you want that place to be into it. To be dancing around shouting “We’ve got the World Cup!” (or, even better, “We’ve got the World Cup final!”). Metaphorically, but also definitely literally. At least a bit. And flags are the first sign of that excitement.

But then, reality doesn’t always play along with the dreams of tourists or the plans of administrators. As the World Cup drifted towards Lyon, a heatwave — the canicule — has sat heavy over much of central and southeastern Europe. Down on the south coast, temperature records melted as the mercury rose to 45.9° C (114.6° F), and while Lyon, a little inland, wasn’t quite so punished, this is still a city weathering three figures of Fahrenheit without much in the way of air conditioning. You can see how that might preclude dancing.

As for the flags, well, as one Lyonnais told me with a sigh, “The World Cup is here, but the France team isn’t.” (He then gave me a picture-perfect Gallic shrug, which I shall treasure forever.) There is, of course, no shame in losing to the tea-sipping dream-wrecking juggernaut that is the United States women, but it has rather robbed Lyon — and the tournament — of the chance to see their players strutting in their own yard.

Instead, just two of OL’s current squad made it through to the last four. Shanice van de Sanden was given a rapturous reception when she came on late for the Netherlands against Sweden, interested locals combining their applause with the manic Dutch support. England’s Lucy Bronze might been afforded some local backing as well, along with former Lyonnaise Alex Morgan, but in truth it was almost impossible to tell; the Parc was about 80 percent “USA! USA! USA!”, and up in the gods, nothing else was getting through.

As part of the broader cultural business of hosting a World Cup final, Lyon’s city hall, the Hôtel de Ville, houses a France Football Federation exhibition called “Once Upon a Time in the Land of the Blues.” As with all good football exhibitions, it nails the required balance between interesting historical curiosities, cool things that belonged to cool people, and pictures of players wearing frankly peculiar kits.

It ends with four large panels, each accompanied with a clutch of ephemera and tat, tracing the history of the team. From the guerrilla tournament of Mexico ‘71, through the long struggle for official acceptance in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then through to the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st century, when France began to emerge as a nation to be reckoned with in the women’s game. It ends with a big montage of the stars of the current squad, a quick recap as to how they all came to be together, and … well, just that. A huge, implied, heavily pregnant “...”

That ellipsis — not presumptuous, but optimistic and hopeful — was supposed to be completed with CHAMPIONS!!!. Instead, by the time the tournament arrived in Lyon, it had been filled with “out in the quarter-finals, again.” Which retroactively lends the entire exhibition an patina of incompleteness. Of never-to-be-completeness. And maybe even sadness.

France v USA: Quarter Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

It’s an odd city, Lyon. So much so, in fact, that this oddness has earned it a place on UNESCO’s Big List Of Nice Places That People Have Made. They explain:

Unlike many other cities where the centre was destroyed in order to be rebuilt in the same place with new architecture, Lyon’s centre has shifted location, enabling the safeguarding of whole districts whose permanence renders the history of the city visible on the buildings themselves ... The city is typologically and architecturally permeated by its uses (commerce, craft, industry, teaching, religion…) and the expression of powers (civil, religious, hospitable, merchant, bourgeois, canut, industrial…).

What this means is that instead of needing history to be excavated, presented, and explained, guests can just go and walk through it. Start with the ruined Roman amphitheatre up on the hills of Fourvière — and what civic generosity, to leave the site open for anybody to wander into — before ambling down the hill into the old town, then crossing the bridges towards the newer buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries, as architectural movements flower and fade around you. And if you’ve a particular yen for something more modern, you can head down to La Confluence, where the rivers meet, and look at some excellently strange boxes.

Squint a bit, and you can read the Parc, out on the edges of the city, as a part of this eastward trend of building, building, and building again. It’s well beyond walking distance — which is why the Dutch fans haven’t been allowed to hold their usual parade to the stadium — but it is, in theory, yet another centre of power. Lyon’s owner, Jean Michel-Aulas, has plans to supplement his shiny new stadium, built for the 2016 Euros, with a hotel, leisure centre, and another sporting arena, this one geared toward basketball or ice hockey. One local said he was building “a town of his own”, noting that local objections seemed to vanish mysteriously.

Records reveal that more than 100,000 people went out to Aulas’ little Lyon for the semi-finals. Judging by the conversations in the queues for the trams and trains, as well as up in the stands, plenty were locals. That their team wouldn’t be the ones making history didn’t stop the Lyonnais coming to see history made, at this grand and imposing stadium that stands as an expression, written in architecture, of the city’s sporting, cultural power.

Netherlands v Sweden: Semi Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

It seems, at least to me, as though Lyon is wearing its World Cup final lightly. But at the same time a lot of people, Lyonnais and otherwise, are having a lot of fun. Good-natured, French-accented chants of “USA! USA!” follow the American fans around, even if sometimes the locals need to stop to quickly check on the actual result. The English have gone, but the Netherlands fans have arrived, bringing a welcome splash of orange and a loud party bus to the star-spangled streets.

Perhaps the absence of the France team is calming the overt carnival, and perhaps the heat — still heavy, sticky, and dangerous — is dampening, well, everything. But everyone here wants you to have a good game, even if they don’t care about the result, and plenty of people know that hosting a World Cup final is something to revel in. It’s an exclusive club that Lyon is about to join; only 21 cities have hosted World Cup finals, across the men’s and women’s game.

After the USA beat England, I got chatting to a local on the tram home. A Marseille fan, he spent some time bemoaning the fact that the Stade Vélodrome had been overlooked by the tournament. But he added that it was right for the final to be in Lyon, and not “up at the Stade de France, in Paris.” He smiled. “They get everything else.”