PARIS, June 10: As I write these words, a billion people -- almost one-sixth of the world's population -- are getting ready to watch Brazil take on Scotland in the opening game of the World Cup. Five thousand of them are right here, gathered outside L'Hotel de Ville in the heart of Paris to witness the event on a giant Jumbotron television constructed for the unlucky many who could not get tickets to the match.
The weather is sunny, but ominous storm clouds occasionally roll by. On this hallowed ground, where the blood of French men and women flowed during 18th century revolutionary purges, rowdy Scottish soccer fans are staging a massive outdoor party. It is a sea of blue and white. Here and there some Brazilian yellow can be seen.
A group of 10 fans has just arrived and laid out an enormous Scottish flag for use as a picnic blanket. On the cross where the flag's white lines intersect, they plunk down four cases of Foster's Lager "oil cans" (the 20-ounce monsters). It's a picnic of sorts, but there's only one thing on the menu: beer.
Everywhere are overweight, red-faced men in kilts, many with their faces painted blue and white. One volunteers to demonstrate to a Brazilian television crew just how little Scots wear under those wool coverings. As he bends over, the cameraman comes in for what must be a frightening close-up of a bare male ass. One can only wonder what the folks back home in Rio are thinking.
Another kilted fan scales one of the bronzed green statues that line L'Hotel. Straddling its shoulders, he grasps a beer with one hand and waves a large Scottish flag with the other. From 15 feet above the square he yells, "Fuck England!" The masses below cheer their support. He spies five French gendarmes approaching and lets out an equally hearty "Vive la France!" to laughs and cheers.
The World Cup is here and the mood is nothing short of ecstatic. It's loud. It's raucous. It's almost out of control. But it's also a hell of a lot of fun. And the game hasn't even started.
Into the second half, the Scottish team appears to be holding its own against a far superior Brazilian side. Storm clouds are gathering over Paris and the putrid smell of beer dried into cement is growing stronger by the minute.
Suddenly, the chants and songs cease as all eyes focus on the screen in a moment of wonder. There is Brazilian striker Ronaldo, 20 feet tall on the Jumbotron, the ball at his feet, smoothly dancing his way around one, then two, then three, then four Scottish defenders in a super slo-mo replay. Scotland's big sweeper Colin Hendry (whose long blond locks make him look like he should have been an extra in "Braveheart") has been spun around so many times that he looks like a dog trying to catch his own tail. He's running with his back to Ronaldo, looking over his shoulder, trying to figure out which way to turn.
Ronaldo makes it look so easy. As he coolly dodges and weaves past the opposition, he appears remarkably confident and composed. The clip seems to last 10 minutes and leaves even the Scots speechless, if only for a moment.
A few minutes later, the Scottish team is cursed with a bit of terrible luck. After a Brazilian shot on goal, the ball bounces mistakenly off defender Jimmy Floyd's shoulder toward his own net. Hendry desperately tries to stop it from rolling in, but he can't get there in time. Cries of despair rise into the storm-laden Paris air. Some fans curse; others weep. Scotland's moment in the sun has passed. They are now down, 2-1.
Satisfied simply to hold their lead, the Brazilians play keep-away and let the clock run out. When the final whistle blows, the kilted crowd around me is disappointed but also proud. "We gave 'em a good run for their money!" one of the Foster's group proclaims.
As if on cue, the sky lets loose with a tremendous downpour, and any further festivities are washed out. Hundreds of us swoop into the nearest Metro stop. The first game of France '98 is history.
ON BOARD THE TGV, June 12: I'm whizzing through France at 150 mph bound for Marseille for the evening match between France and South Africa. This will be South Africa's first-ever World Cup game, having been banned from the tournament for the last 28 years due to apartheid. Soccer has long been the sport of choice for the country's black population, but under apartheid, they were not permitted to play with whites. Instead, "colored" leagues, much like U.S. baseball's Negro Leagues of yesteryear, were formed. These days the team known as Bafana Bafana, or "the boys," consists primarily of black players. I'm hoping to find a South African fan with whom I can chat about race relations, the politics of football in that country, etc.
As the French countryside blurs by, I head back to the cafe car for a beer and meet Gary, a transplanted South African who lives in London. He's already been traveling for five hours. He caught the train at Waterloo and is headed straight for Marseille.
Gary's got sad eyes and a somewhat droopy face. He seems to be a nice, thoughtful fellow. He even went to college in the United States on a soccer scholarship at North Texas State ("We were No. 11 nationwide," he offers). We make plans to share a cab together from the station to the game when we arrive in Marseille. Now that I've found an interesting pal for my story, I return to my seat for some shut-eye.
When we arrive in Marseille two hours later, Gary stumbles out of the train, arms draped across two Englishmen. He swigs from an open can of beer in one hand, while grasping a closed one in the other. As we head toward the taxi stand, he and his English mates start loudly singing Tottenham Hotspur fight songs. He's drunk off his ass and he's expecting me to get him to the game. So much for uncovering the profound meaning of South Africa's first appearance in the World Cup.
After Gary takes some cash out of a bank machine and nearly loses his wallet, we hop in a cab. Immediately our driver tries to sell us tickets to the match. He's asking only about 10 pounds over face value and Gary's amazed.
As the streets of Marseille go flying by, Gary yells out the window at every female within earshot. He and the driver strike up a conversation in Franglais about the women of Marseille. The driver bridges the communication gap by sticking his right index finger through the circle his thumb and index finger on his left hand have formed. Gary lets out a hearty laugh.
I ditch my South African comrade once we arrive at the grounds and soon find my seat inside Le Stade Velodrome. Behind me sits a row of 10 college-age males, all with red, white and blue French flags painted on their faces. They've got the air of American frat boys, but they're thinner and much better looking. One or two could double as Tommy Hilfiger models.
These are very, very loud French fans, first bellowing out the French national anthem, then leading the chants: "Allez, allez, allez!" or "Allez les bleus, allez les bleus!" There are some variations on these, but it seems that every French cheer involves the word allez ("go") and les bleus (the national team's nickname because of the blue color of its uniforms).
The game starts and a chilling wind whips across the field. Though it's the middle of June, it must be no more than 50 degrees out. The boys behind me scream, "Zizou, Zizou!" each time France's central midfielder, Zinedine Zidane, touches the ball. In addition to being Marseille's hometown hero, Zidane is far and away France's most important player. He is their playmaker, their maestro.
To watch Zidane play live is sheer revelation. On a field far larger than the U.S. football gridiron, he is seemingly everywhere at once, controlling the game for his team. Slightly stoop-shouldered, with a large and growing bald spot, he seems an unlikely candidate to dominate any sport. But Zidane is blessed with tremendous balance and strength, and he possesses the most important attribute of any great playmaker -- imagination. He creates scoring opportunities where none seem to exist. On the ball, he moves like a panther, head lowered, jersey often askew, bouncing and spinning off defenders. Suddenly, at just the right moment, he makes that improbable pass to spring a teammate into the clear, just behind the opponent's defense. It's the kind of pass that even good soccer players cannot imagine, let alone execute. He is a whirling dervish of soccer frenzy, a genius to behold.
All French roads to goal go through Zizou. He takes all the team's corner kicks and most penalty kicks. More important, he runs the offense and organizes the defense. His importance to "les bleus" cannot be overestimated. If France is at long last to enter the World Cup holy land (the team has never done better than the semifinals), it will be Zidane who leads them there.
It is ironic that this brilliant athlete also happens to be the son of Algerian parents. Though Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan and Senegalese immigrants play an increasingly important role in France, many French do not welcome them, and signs of racism are not difficult to uncover. The fans behind me are a good example: I return to my seat several minutes after the second half has begun, forcing the two Moroccan immigrant French teens in the seats next to me to stand so I can pass. The three of us temporarily block the view of the French frat boys. These same fans who earlier had called Zidane's nickname with such admiration now holler at the three of us: "Asseyez-vous!" and, because they know I am American, "Sit down!" Then one of them yells some gibberish in mimicked Arabic. It's an insult clearly aimed at the two Moroccan-French boys, and his friends laugh, albeit a bit sheepishly.
The game ends 3-0 for France. I run out of the stadium, board the Metro and head back to the train station, catching the 1 a.m. TGV to Paris. By 7 a.m I am fast asleep in the comfort of a friend's apartment on Boulevard Port Royal.
PARIS, June 13: Parisians seem generally unfazed by World Cup hoopla. During several lolls through the cinquième arrondisement I've found quiet acknowledgment of the event but not much downright enthusiasm.
I've just wandered into the Cafe du Port Royal to watch Spain take on Nigeria. The restaurant has strung the flags of the 32 Cup participants in the entryway (these seem to be standard issue for every eating and drinking establishment in the city). But only a small TV atop the dessert cooler broadcasts the game. A teenager on roller skates smokes and bangs away on "The Addams Family" pinball machine in the corner. A haggard old woman sits with her back to the television, chain-smoking and eating quiche. The bartender is engrossed in his dishwashing. Other patrons seem content to stare out the window at yet another cold, damp day.
Suddenly Raul, Spain's Wunderkind striker, blasts a scorching shot past Nigeria's goalkeeper. As the announcers crow about a spectacular goal, no one in the cafe looks up. Welcome to World Cup fever, Paris-style. At moments like this it seems hard to believe that thousands of Bangladeshis have been rioting for three days because power outages have prevented them from watching Cup matches.
But that is not to say that Paris has not found its own unique way of exploiting Cup excitement. A recent ad in the city's weekly entertainment circular Pariscope translates roughly as follows:
"Come see the Moulin Rouge Stadium featuring a 70-square-meter screen.
"The Moulin Rouge invites you to experience the 16 matches of the final phase of the World Cup in a unique place, the uncontested symbol of France. Tingle as if you were there for the sporting event of the year. And admire the 60 Doriss Girls and their celebrated French can-can as they make the third half of the game unforgettable.
"It promises to be a great moment for Football and an excellent evening.
"Cover Price for Le Match Finale: 2,000 francs"
If I stumble across $330, my next report will be ringside from the Moulin Rouge!