SUNDAY, JUNE 28: New York to Paris
There are but two psychological states available to the
trans-Atlantic air traveler--torpor and terror--and the same
might be said of spectators at the World Cup, that quadrennial
showcase of scoreless soccer enlivened only by the clear-air
turbulence of hooliganism. So why combine these activities? Why
fly to France for a week's worth of "football," when the only
touchdown on offer is an uneven landing in Paris?
Because something Wilbur Wright said of flight seems also to
apply to soccer: "If you are looking for perfect safety, you
will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds. But if you
really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become
acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."
What do I hope to learn in the next six days? Nothing less than
the secrets of Kanu and Cafu and Camus. Nwankwo Kanu--not so
much a name as an unplayable Scrabble rack--had a hole in his
aorta 19 months ago but recovered to compete for Nigeria in the
World Cup. The mononymous Cafu is a defender for Brazil, the
world's most stylish and self-absorbed collection of athletes, a
team aptly described by one Brazilian newspaper as a "cauldron
of vanities." And Albert Camus was a French philosopher who once
said, "All that I know most surely about morality and
obligations, I owe to football."
July 12, 1998
In these men you have the World Cup, to say nothing of the world
itself. It is all there: elan, ego and French pretentiousness.
Morality, obligations and a stout heart. As a sportswriter, I
know little of morality and even less of obligations. So there
is this, too: One week at the World Cup might--just might--make
me a better human being.
MONDAY, JUNE 29: Paris
Eleven p.m. on the Champs-Elysees and Yugoslav players are
getting hammered. On television, that is, during a 2-1
second-round loss to the Netherlands, but is it really any
wonder? "The Yugoslavian players are out until two or three
every morning," U.S. coach Steve Sampson had said earlier in the
World Cup. "The security officers [for the U.S. team] talk to
the security officers for other teams. We have been informed
that the Yugoslavian security officers are exhausted from
staying up until two or three every morning watching Yugoslavian
"Excessive nightclubbing"--the offense for which South Africa
reportedly dismissed a midfielder from its squad--is the game
within the game at the World Cup. And so officially licensed
World Cup condoms sell in Champs-Elysees souvenir shops, and
Bulgarian superstar Hristo Stoichkov had nightclubbed so
excessively that he couldn't get out of bed for one team
meeting, and most English supporters would benefit from
receiving Mickey Mantle's original liver. If the World Cup were
an actual cup, it would be made of half a coconut and come with
an umbrella. At a sidewalk newsstand on the Champs-Elysees, I
purchase a British newspaper, The Independent, and read the
bold, above-the-fold headline: ENGLISH FANS WILL BE ABLE TO
DRINK ALL DAY. Tomorrow bars will remain open from 8:30 a.m.
until 11 p.m. in St. Etienne, where England is to play Argentina
at 9 o'clock in the evening.
Drunken English fans, of course, rioted on match days in
Marseilles and Lens. And given the history of England and
Argentina--Maradona's notorious "hand of God" goal beat England
in the '86 World Cup, four years after the Falklands War--the
failure of French officials to ban alcohol in St. Etienne is
seen as curious at best, particularly when most English fans in
the town of 200,000 will be without match tickets. "There will
be a high level of frustration which will [leave] people looking
for drink to find some other outlet for their energies," Tom
Pendry, a member of the British Parliament, warns in The
Indepedent. "This is a cocktail for disaster."
Yet reading this last line at midnight in Harry's Bar, at large
in the land of the World Cup, I have but one thought, and it is
a Homer Simpsonian one at that: Mmmmmm...cocktail.
TUESDAY, JUNE 30: St. Etienne
"May I take your picture?" photographer Al Tielemans asks an
English gentleman whose head is shaved--save for a four-foot
ponytail--and whose body is tattooed with the illustrated
history of Britain. It is an hour before England-Argentina, a
mile from Geoffroy Guichard Stadium, and the man is drinking
from a frothing 40-ounce bottle of Kronenbourg. "No, you cannot
f------ take my picture," our friend enunciates with remarkable
clarity. "Piss off."
Off we piss, ducking into a bar so grimly utilitarian that it
has only the words SNACK BAR stenciled on the windows. The
peeling wallpaper inside is supposed to look like wood paneling.
This may well be a first in interior decor: simulated simulated
wood paneling. To liven up the place, Big Al Moonie of
Biggleswade, England, has hung an English flag--his name and
hometown sewn to the cross of St. George--over most of one wall.
Another 100 or so English, including as many as three women,
have crammed themselves into Snack Bar, packing it from front
door to fetid toilet.
"Are you a journalist?" asks a skinny, pop-eyed, prominently
Adam's-appled 18-year-old with a close-cropped head.
"Then you should leave," he says. "You shouldn't be here."
"Is that advice or a threat?"
"Decide that for yourself," he replies.
"What's the problem?"
"What's the problem?" he says. "After what the journalists have
done to us this week?"
A 250-pound bloke with hair spiked like pineapple skin cannot
help overhearing. "You'll be all right here," he assures us,
shooing away Adam's apple. The man is Butch from Bristol, and he
says he has followed England--literally followed the team--for
10 years. He and friends Marco and Joe are commuting to this
World Cup from the west coast of England. This is their fourth
trip to France in three weeks. "We're just here for the
football," he says. "They were asking 600 quid for tickets
outside the stadium. That's what, $1,000? So we're watching it
The entire bar sings God Save the Queen before kickoff, and the
rest of the evening unfolds in song. Argentina scores first on a
penalty kick and--to the tune of If You're Happy and You Know It
Clap Your Hands--the whole of Snack Bar belts out a chorus of:
"If it wasn't for the English you'd be Krauts."
When Alan Shearer gets the equalizer for England, a man to my
right turns and hugs me, his train-wreck smile reminding me of
Austin Powers. "Keep St. George in my heart, keep me English,"
the crowd sings. "Keep St. George in my heart, I pray. Keep St.
George in my heart, keep me English. Keep me English till my
dying day." Which segues, oddly and immediately, into "No
sur-render, no sur-render, no sur-render to the IRA!"
Moments later 18-year-old English phenomenon Michael Owen scores
a spectacular go-ahead goal, the best of the World Cup, and the
crowd goes Snack Barmy. Snack Bar is a mosh pit. I am knocked to
the ground but recover to sing--to the tune of Michael Rowed the
Boat Ashore--"Michael Owen scores the goals, Al-le-loo-oo-ia!"
But just before half Argentina makes it 2-2, and English anger
turns toward the retired Maradona. To Handel's Hallelujah
Chorus, everyone sings, "Mar-a-dona! Mar-a-dona! Isawanker!
So it goes, through David Beckham's being sent off for England
in the 47th minute for kicking an Argentinian player, through
the entire scoreless second half, through 30 scoreless minutes
of extra time. Before the grim vigil of the penalty kicks, 100
English in Snack Bar sway as one, singing--to Auld Lang
Syne--"We're proud of you, we're proud of you, we're proud of
you, we're proud.... "
But many in the crowd have turned their backs to the TV, unable
to look, for penalties always go wrong for England, which lost
on them to Germany in the semifinals of the '90 World Cup and to
Germany again in the semis of the '96 European championships. As
if prepared for the inevitable, three guys behind me sing--to
the tune of She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain When She
Comes--"We'll be right nasty bastards if we lose!" They sound
On the final penalty kick David Batty places the ball on the
spot, measures off his steps and bangs his shot off the
goalkeeper's hands. England loses and Snack Bar goes batty.
Several fans slump onto tables, but many more pour into the
streets. Bottles are thrown, V signs are flashed, epic profanity
rains on all unlucky pedestrians. Hundreds of police in riot
gear rumble up the pavement of the narrow streets. Three men in
handcuffs are shoveled into paddy wagons. Four paper-hatted
teenagers stand inside a locked and unlit McDonald's, waiting
until it is safe to leave.
We make for the car and head out of town after midnight, and
from every precinct come three sounds: the barking of dogs, the
breaking of glass and the donkey bray of French police sirens
going ee-yore ee-yore ee-yore....
WEDNESDAY, JULY 1: Ozoir-Brazil
In the morning, over breakfast in a chateau in the vineyard
village of Villie-Morgon, I meet a regal Argentine named Horacio
Bernardo Scliar, who manages a factory in Buenos Aires.
Attending the World Cup with his three adult sons, Fernando,
Martin and Esteban, Horacio is happy, but he cannot mask his
concern for the Argentines. "That was not a good match
stylistically," he frets. "Argentina did not play with flair."
Playing with flair is of paramount importance to South America's
teams, a fact that will hit home this afternoon when Al and I
drive four hours north to Ozoir-La-Ferriere, which has
officially changed its name for the duration of the World Cup to
Ozoir-Brazil, the training headquarters of the Brazilian
national team, is only seven miles from Disneyland Paris, which
is appropriate as the Brazilians have attracted a Goofy, Dopey,
Happy horde of hangers-on and hangers-out. Practices are open to
the public--free tickets are required--and the stadium's 4,000
capacity is filled every day. "You should come," the team's p.r.
contact, a woman named Ana, had told me. "Everyone has fun. It
is very relaxed."
So it is. From the stands the Brazil bus is cheered raucously as
it rolls into the parking lot outside. Ten minutes later the
players emerge from a tunnel to meet the Brazilian press corps,
many of whose members extend balls and T-shirts to be
autographed, hands to be clasped, cheeks to be kissed. Several
carry disposable cameras and ask the players to pose. I am not
making this up. The team's calisthenics get a standing ovation.
I take a seat in the stands between a man wearing a hat
decorated with the miniature heads of Brazilian national team
members--they stick out from the crown of his cap like cherry
tomatoes skewered on toothpicks--and a 400-pound Brazilian man
in a platinum blond wig who keeps standing up to samba. Did I
mention that a band is playing throughout the practice? Of
course it is.
Now picture the Chicago Bulls allowing this--inviting this--as
they prepare for the NBA Finals, or the Green Bay Packers
practicing in such a way for the Super Bowl. You can't? Then you
have just discovered, at 5:17 on a Wednesday afternoon, what
makes the World Cup what it is--whatever it is.
As we bid adieu to Ozoir-Brazil, Ronaldo, the team's 21-year-old
superstar, is blithely chipping a ball into the goal from
midfield and grinning that grin that looks like the grille of a
badly used Mercedes.
THURSDAY, JULY 2: Lyons and Nice
Parked in downtown Lyons is a badly used Mercedes with German
license plates. The owner has ripped off the hood
ornament--which is the main reason most people buy a Benz in the
first place--and replaced it with a miniature soccer ball.
Having driven 1,000 miles in three days in pursuit of football,
Al and I somehow understand.
No World Cup games are scheduled today, so we drive to Nice, the
town so nice they named it...Nice. The German team trains here,
and though we don't see any players, the trip is worth every
four-dollar gallon of gas. For the sea is the color of
antifreeze, and the sky is like stone-washed denim, and the only
work people are doing is on their tans. Nobody cares about
anything on the French Riviera. These people have more phrases
for apathy than Eskimos have for snow. In addition to ennui and
malaise and blase, there are que sera sera and c'est la vie
and--well, you get the picture. Nice is less than an hour's
drive from the France-Italy border, and France plays Italy in a
quarterfinal match tomorrow, but you would never know it to gaze
at the thonged throngs on the beach.
Not that I do, mind you.
FRIDAY, JULY 3: Menton, France, and Ventimiglia, Italy
In Menton, a seaside town 1,000 meters from the Italian border,
this afternoon's match is a civic obsession. On the beach, cones
are set up, a ball is rolled out and children gather to play...
baseball. To be fair, one old guy at a produce stand has painted
his handlebar mustache in the tricolors of France, and his buddy
is reading the Nice Matin newspaper, whose front-page headline
states bluntly, FRANCE-ITALIE--LE DERBY DES FAUX AMIS ("the
match between phony friends"). So perhaps things will pick up.
We will watch the first half of Le Derby Des Faux Amis in the
Italian town of Ventimiglia, 20 minutes to the east of Menton.
"My name is Tony," says a man who approaches in the Ventimiglia
vegetable market, where flags reading FORZA ITALIA! are planted
in piles of garlic. "You speak French? My English is not so
good. I work on a cruise ship. We get watches in Switzerland,
you understand? Breitling, Rolex, Tag Heuer.... "
We don't want to buy a watch, we tell Tony. We want to watch the
"Go into any bar," he says. "No, go to the Festival Cafe. On the
beach. A grand panorama. Talk to Rudy. He's a friend of mine.
You drink a cafe, drink a beer, drink a cafe, drink a beer--like
that. Pretty soon, people go crazy."
"Grazie, Tony," I tell him.
Tony looks crestfallen: "You mean you no want to buy a watch?"
A TV has been set up outside the Festival, with its grand
panorama of sea, and at the 4:30 p.m. kickoff, a very serious
Italian kid of 16 yells, "Silenzio!" This omerta is honored for
most of the desultory, scoreless first half, in which Italy
adopts a dreary defensive posture. But so what: Italian sports
television is a revelation, with its gratuitous supermodel
studio hostesses and split-second commercials wedged into
dead-ball sequences, so that a shot of a toothpaste tube will
suddenly flash onto the screen in mid-match. And the match
itself has its moments. When French midfielder Zinedine Zidane
falls to the pitch clutching his crotch, the cafe crowd erupts
into song, joyously hand-gesturing various suggestions at the
At the halftime intermission, we hightail it back to Menton,
whose streets are eerily silent. In an outdoor cafe at the Hotel
les Arcades, 40 people variously sit and stand around a
television, smoking and sipping and shrugging through a
scoreless second half and extra time.
Then the funniest thing happens. The match goes to penalty
kicks. France wins 4-3. And suddenly, instantly, a thousand tiny
Renaults are racing around the town square, their little horns
parping. Menton sounds like a thousand Felix Ungers clearing
Flags flutter from the French doors of apartments. Firecrackers
begin to pop. On the beachfront avenue, the Promenade du Soleil,
cars race up and down all night, flying blue-white-and-red
scarves and parping endlessly. Strangers embrace, old men beam,
waiters are fractionally less rude. France is a nation
The French get happy every 20 years, whether they need to or
not, just to exercise their smile muscles. Tonight is that
night. For one evening they pretend to like even tourists.
Tonight, we are all their faux amis.
SATURDAY, JULY 4: Menton to Paris
The seven-hour drive back to Paris affords ample time to absorb
lessons from this trip. There were many novel experiences: I got
to write the phrase "Bulgarian superstar" for the first time. I
know where to buy a Swiss watch in Ventimiglia, Italy. I will
never hear She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain in quite the same
I think I did discover the secrets of Kanu and Cafu and
Camus--seeing stout hearts (England-Argentina) and Brazilian
brilliance (in the person of Ronaldo) and learning something of
morality and obligations (namely, that there is none of either
at La Coupe du Monde).
Four years ago to this day, the U.S. was playing Brazil in the
second round of the World Cup; in this Cup's 32-team field the
U.S. finished last. But if America has regressed in soccer, I,
as an American soccer fan, have come a long way. Quite
literally, in fact. Al and I drove more than 2,000 miles in the
last six days, and our rented Renault Safrane now resembles a
fuel-injected Dumpster. By climbing off the fence, mounting the
machine of La Coupe du Monde and experiencing its tricks by
actual trial, I have become a more catholic sports fan. So
perhaps the World Cup has made me a better human being after
all. It has certainly made me a more smelly one.
We stop at a gas station near Auxerre. I buy a Coke to mark
Independence Day, on which Americans celebrate shedding the
shackles of a soccer-crazed nation, freeing us to form our own
Constitution, our own government, our own curious brand of
football. Back in the car, as Holland-Argentina kicks off on the
radio, I cannot help but think, if only for a moment: What ever
were the Founding Fathers thinking?
If the World Cup were a cup, it would be made of half a coconut
and come with an umbrella.
To Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, everyone sings, "Mar-a-dona!
Members of the Brazilian press carry cameras and ask the players
to pose with them.