Flying Start Among the many surprises in a lively first round of matches in France were the defending champions' struggles, a fallen hero's redemption and a chilly reception from the host nation

June 21, 1998

When Cesar Sampaio of Brazil scored the first goal of the 1998
World Cup, against Scotland on June 10, he did so with his right
shoulder. "It is God's shoulder," said Sampaio, echoing Diego
Maradona of Argentina, whose handball goal against England in
the '86 quarterfinals was really directed, Maradona would say
later, by "the hand of God." Ever since, the Supreme Being has
been scoring as if he were Pele. When Rabah Madjer of Algeria
put in a goal with the back of his foot in the '87 European Cup
final, an Italian paper attributed the goal to "the heel of
Allah." So the world watched with some surprise last Saturday,
to say nothing of relief, when midfielder Garba Lawal of Nigeria
scored the tying goal in the Super Eagles' 3-2 upset of Spain
while falling on his rear end, for he somehow declined to credit
the goal to God's buttocks.

But then little went according to form as the World Cup opened
last week in 10 cities across France. "Be wary of preconceived
ideas," warned Jose Luis Chilavert after Paraguay's 0-0 draw
last Friday with Bulgaria, and he ought to know: He takes free
and penalty kicks for Paraguay despite being the goalkeeper. His
proved to be good advice, for the Coupe du Monde has already
seen Scotland outscore Brazil while losing in the opening match,
parkas become de rigueur on the Cote d'Azur, and Roberto Baggio
emerge as the penalty-kick hero for Italy. And that was just in
the first five days.

It was hardly surprising that all of this happened in France,
where the world's most popular sporting event--with an
anticipated 37 billion television viewers over 33 days of
play--was often obstinately snubbed. At Bar Tok, near the
Bastille in Paris, a bouncer ejected anyone who dared speak of
soccer. A national TV network, M6, was likewise advertising a
policy of "zero percent" soccer. The Peripherique, the main ring
road around the capital, was as clogged with traffic as ever
last Friday night as the French national team played its opening
match in Marseilles. Vive l'indifference.

But then, be wary of preconceived ideas about French ennui.
After all, organizers received more than 20 million ticket
applications from around the world, and 60% of the 2.5 million
available seats still went to residents of France. All of them
seemed to be at Stade Velodrome in Marseilles when France opened
against South Africa in a 75-mph gale, the same mistral that
blew down part of a hospitality village at the stadium in
another Mediterranean coast city, Montpellier, sending three
people to the hospital. It rained relentlessly on the rest of
the nation all week, fans bundling up in winter coats while
players soldiered on in shorts and shirtsleeves, like so many
Bowie Kuhns.

Thank goodness for that fortitude, for le foot, as the French
call their soccer, was full of surprises from the opening
kickoff. Scotland scored twice against Brazil--putting one ball
in Brazil's goal, the other in its own goal--in losing 2-1 to
the world champions, who looked fairly ordinary, in contrast to
most preconceived ideas about them. "We proved that the
Brazilians have their weaknesses, especially in defense," said
Scotland midfielder John Collins. "This team is not all it's
cracked up to be."

Collins could say that because he had just scored on Brazil, and
on a penalty kick, no less--the first penalty called against
Brazil in a Cup since '66. That it came two days after Joao
Havelange of Brazil stepped down following almost a quarter
century as autocratic president of FIFA, soccer's world
governing body, was no doubt mere coincidence.

Likewise, there was surely no cosmic conspiracy the next night
in Bordeaux, where Baggio was left to take a late and decisive
penalty kick for Italy. But it was an interesting coincidence,
was it not? The 1994 World Cup began with Baggio being called
the best player in the world and ended with him in disgrace when
he put the final kick of a penalty shoot-out over the crossbar
against Brazil. The following year he was transferred by his
Italian league club, Juventus, to AC Milan (whose owner was said
to feel sorry for Baggio) and finally to Bologna (after Parma's
manager nixed an offer from Milan).

But Baggio, 31, played his way back onto his third World Cup
team, as backup to the current Italian star, 23-year-old
Alessandro Del Piero. When Del Piero had to sit out Italy's
opener with a strained thigh muscle, Baggio was suddenly
starting at striker against Chile. On his third touch of the
match, he took a long pass from Italy's backfield and, without
allowing it to reach the ground, laid a perfect through-ball to
Christian Vieri, who scored easily.

Chile's superstar is Marcelo Salas. He's 5'8" on a good hair day
and could dunk a basketball in studded boots. He scored twice
against Italy, the second on a leaping header, giving his team a
2-1 lead that held up until a questionable Chilean handball call
in the 85th minute gave Baggio his second penalty kick in as
many World Cup matches. "As I was about to take the penalty, I
thought back to the one I had to take in USA '94," Baggio would
say later, but for now he put his head down, took a few mincing
steps toward the ball and drove it into the lower left corner of
the goal for a face-saving 2-2 draw. The same Italian sports
pages that had buried him four years ago naturally exhumed the
body, their pink pages fairly blushing with headlines like
GRAZIE, BAGGIO! and BAGGIO SALVA L'ITALIA! Be wary of
preconceived ideas.

Like the ones about the alluring south of France. In Marseilles,
English hooligans engaged in pitched battles with riot police
last weekend, before England's 2-0 victory over Tunisia on
Monday, resulting in some 50 arrests and 35 injuries. The city
may have looked scorching in The French Connection, but it was
frigid and tornadic last Friday night, which made no difference
to the Marseillais, France's most soccer-mad citizens. Though
Frenchmen helped create FIFA, organized the first World Cup and
fathered international soccer in general, France hadn't
qualified for the tournament since 1986. In 1996-97 its domestic
league barely drew more fans per match (16,000) than did Major
League Soccer last year (14,600), and so there has been a French
footballing diaspora this decade, with 60% of the national team
playing in richer leagues abroad.

Thus, when this French foreign legion returned to Marseilles to
whip a weak South African team 3-0, it heard the pent-up cheers
of a dozen years. Zinedine Zidane, the world's finest
midfielder, was raised in a high-rise housing project near the
Marseilles airport and is as much a mascot of this World Cup as
the stuffed chicken named Footix. Last week Zidane seemed to
brood from the cover of every magazine in France, with the
exception of Paris Match, which went with Ronaldo. So when this
son of Algerian immigrants set up France's first goal, a corner
kick headed home by Christophe Dugarry, the stadium seemed to
levitate--perhaps it was only the mistral--and Dugarry reeled
around the pitch with his tongue lolling out, in apparent homage
to Jerry Lewis.

In other words, don't discard all your preconceived ideas, for
some of them turn out to be true. The French really do like
Jerry Lewis. They really were fond, for that matter, of
detonating nuclear devices in the South Pacific. A few years
ago, when France was conducting atomic tests in his native New
Caledonia, which is a French overseas territory, Real Madrid
star Christian Karembeu called for a boycott of all things
French. Karembeu, a midfielder, has presumably lifted that
embargo now that he's playing for France. A squall of support
for Les Bleus is now traveling slowly but steadily from south to
north. Soon Paris will fall.

How can it resist? World Cup crowds (hooligans excepted) are
carriers of joy. The one attending the 2-2 draw between Morocco
and Norway in Montpellier featured all the fez-wearing of most
Shriners' conventions, if none of the decorum. Members of
Scotland's Tartan Army wore kilts--often nothing
more--shotgunned McEwan's lager and sang sweetly on the Paris
Metro after losing to Brazil: "We're coming home/To the good old
summertime/Where the bagpipes are playing/Auld Lang Syne...."
God bless 'em. As former Scotland manager Tommy Docherty has
said of the squad and its supporters, "They'll be home before
the postcards."

Or will they? The same, after all, was said of Nigeria. So what
if the Super Eagles lost their last three pre-Cup tune-ups by a
combined score of 12-1? Who cares if the players reportedly
lobbied Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha to fire coach Bora
Milutinovic as recently as last week? Never mind that they
trailed Spain 2-1 after 72 minutes last Saturday in Nantes.
Think Chilavert.

Abacha died of a heart attack on June 8 (kicking off just 48
hours before the World Cup did), Nigeria scored twice in the
span of five minutes on Saturday to beat Spain 3-2, and
Milutinovic arrived at the Nantes train station for the return
trip to the Super Eagles' training base north of Paris in an
agbada, a flowing white gown and matching papal cap reserved for
the most special of occasions in Nigeria. "I tell you, people
speak so much," said Milutinovic, a Serb who has also coached
the national teams of Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S., referring
to the speculation about his job security. "What is better to
do?" He zipped his mouth shut theatrically and said, in Spanish,
"Tranquilo." Keep calm.

French police tried to cut a path through the crowd of Nigerian
fans, who were surprised to find the Super Eagles suddenly among
them at the station, but the players ignored the cops' cordon
and danced deliriously with the throng, keeping time to a
Nigerian drum-and-rattle corps that seemed to appear
spontaneously. Just before boarding the train, the
Spanglish-speaking, e-pluribus-unum-embodying coach of the Super
Eagles let slip a secret, one worth remembering throughout this
World Cup. "The only true thing is that we win today," said
Milutinovic. "What we did before? All that was strategy."

In other words, be wary of preconceived ideas. The team and the
train pulled away from the platform, but the manager's smile
hung in the air, lingering there like the Cheshire cat's grin.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Grass strains By snuffing seven shots, goalkeeper Filip DeWilde helped Belgium gain a scoreless draw against the mighty Dutch. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Water Jump Filippo Inzaghi of Italy (left) and Miguel Ramirez of Chile battled each other and the downpour during a 2-2 tie.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Scot-free While Ronaldo dazzled defender Colin Hendry, Brazil was less than impressive.

At Bar Tok in Paris, a bouncer ejected anyone who dared speak of
soccer.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)