France against England is one of the great sporting rivalries and, for an Englishman living in Paris, these games carry even more significance. An England win on Monday will secure me bragging rights for years to come. I will be able to return to my French wife in Paris with a self-satisfied smirk on my face regardless of what happens in the rest of the tournament.
In my study at home, I have a permanent reminder of this fixture's rich history. My great-uncle André Lerond captained France in the 1960s and was kind enough to give me a framed photo of him shaking hands with his opposite number Jimmy Armfield at the Parc des Princes before Les Bleus played England in a UEFA European Championship qualifier in 1963. The photo takes pride of place above my desk.
Monsieur Lerond is a remarkable man. As well as representing France with distinction 31 times – wearing the armband nine times and reaching the 1958 FIFA World Cup semi-finals alongside the likes of Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine – he enjoyed a distinguished club career with AS Cannes, Stade Français FC and, in particular, Olympique Lyonnais, where he is considered a legend. He was instrumental in setting up the French players' union, and today, at 81, works tirelessly as the managing director of a hugely successful family business he himself has built up through the decades.
In my discussions with Monsieur Lerond, his respect for the English always shines through. He loved the way English opponents would compete feverishly, throwing themselves into challenges and fighting until the very last second. Games against England, he says, were always ferocious yet always played in the right spirit. He is also immensely proud of the fact that he never lost against England, skippering France to a 1-1 draw at Hillsborough in 1962 and inspiring a memorable 5-2 win in Paris the next year.
My earliest memory of an England-France match dates back to 1992 and a friendly I attended at Wembley. Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer scored to clinch a 2-0 win. I was at the same ground seven years later when Zinédine Zidane tormented the hosts and a teenage Nicolas Anelka finished them off. The latest chapter of this fascinating clash of styles and cultures will be written at the Donbass Arena on Monday. And Monsieur Lerond, like all football enthusiasts in France and England, will be watching with great anticipation.
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