PARIS -- In the pain, there also was consolation. Losing to Argentina in the World Cup final wasn't the ending that heart-broken France fans hoped for. Still, even they could see the merits of having experienced a roller-coaster so intense as to be unforgettable and the outcome both bitter and sweet.
Because if France had to lose, then Lionel Messi winning was a decent second-best.
The knowledge that they'd been treated to one of the greatest finals of all time helped fans of Les Bleus overcome the tears and the agony of Sunday’s epic win by Argentina in a penalty shootout.
"It was the best match of my life — ever,” said 29-year-old Abdoul Toure, who watched in a Paris bar.
As French President Emmanuel Macron consoled France forward Kylian Mbappé after his hat trick at Lusail Stadium in Qatar put France within touching distance of victory but still wasn't enough, fans back home looked on the bright side, saying their team had done them proud.
“They make us dream until the very end,” said Loïc Aubret, a 32-year-old engineer. “They were strong mentally. They can be proud of themselves since we didn’t bet a dime on them at first.”
Losing to Messi made the defeat somewhat more bearable. As much as it stung to see Les Bleus come so close to defending their title from 2018, some fans said they were happy that Messi finally got his hands on the only major trophy to elude him. At 35, he is nearing the end of his storied career.
“That Messi won, that lessens the pain a bit,” said Ulysse Zaoui, 24. “I’m sad but it was a beautiful match.”
Mark Davis, a 35-year-old soccer coach from Salt Lake City who watched the match with friends in Paris, agreed.
“Wow, unbelievable," he said after France came back from 2-0 down and then evened the match again after Messi made it 3-2 in extra time.
Davis eventually got what he wanted: A victory for Messi — thanks to Argentina triumphing 4-2 in the penalty shootout. But being in Paris to experience all that drama blurred the lines.
“My heart was completely torn in half,” he said.
With concrete blocks painted blue, white and red, police sealed off the French capital's most famous boulevard — the Champs-Elysées — to traffic in anticipation of it flooding with celebrating crowds. People did gather and fireworks were fired into the sky when France twice equalized.
But after the sorrow of the penalty shootout, the Champs-Elysées and bars that had been packed quickly emptied and cold rain added to the sense of mourning.
“I’m completely heart-broken,” 18-year-old Oscar Schuman said. “I'm more proud than anything else.
“It was a battle of the gods. This game, I went through every emotion.”
Fans had painted blue, white and red stripes on their faces and squeezed into national jerseys, hoping that Les Bleus would become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to win consecutive World Cups.
Biting cold drove fans indoors, to bars and homes. Those who couldn't get spots inside wrapped up warm as they watched outside bars on sidewalks. For fans in France and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, cold weather was an unusual feature of this year's World Cup, moved to November-December from its usual June-July spot.
“People are less excited, they have less chance to meet and celebrate together,” said Ombeline De Pomerole, a 27-year-old economist who managed to shoehorn herself into a crowded Paris bar.
Like some other fans, she had initially boycotted the World Cup in Qatar, purposefully ignoring the competition because of her concerns for migrant workers in the Gulf state. But France's success eventually changed her mind and she said she started tuning in after Les Bleus beat England in the quarterfinals.
Pharmacist Benoit Labouret, 28, also said the World Cup appeared to have generated less fervor than in 2018 “because it’s winter and in Qatar.”
“Some don’t agree with the conditions, the workers’ (deaths)," he said. “I’m not committed enough to boycott.”
In Paris, the Metro operator marked the momentous occasion by temporarily renaming one of its stations, changing the stop “Argentina” to “Argentina-France, let’s go les Bleus!”
Players past and present also sent messages of support.
“Playing a World Cup final is a childhood dream. Let’s go and get this third star! Allez les Bleus!” Zinedine Zidane posted on Instagram.
It wasn't to be. Still, it was an unforgettable ride.
“It was a beautiful party, a beautiful match,” said Dimitri Martel, 37. ”We chanted, we screamed. It was such a moment of joy despite the result."
Associated Press writers Alex Turnbull and Boubkar Benzebat in Paris and John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, contributed to this report.
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