World Cup Scenes

Matthew McAllester reports from France on the differing passions of Serbian, English and French soccer fans.


Matthew McAllester
July 7, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

His arms raised in the air, the Yugoslavian fan turned to face the crowd behind him. "Serbian Hero. Radovan Karadzic," read the black letters on his white T-shirt. The face of the man wanted for war crimes was sandwiched between the words.

"Ra-do-van Ka-ra-dzic," he chanted, along with about 300 of his fellow fans. "Ra-do-van Ka-ra-dzic."

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The four of us -- two Scottish men and two English women -- concealed our delight when the Dutch scored in the first half. I wondered how the two young guys near us in the orange jerseys of Holland felt. About 95 percent of the stands were dotted or flooded by the orange shirts of Dutch fans, but our little section was red, white and blue, the colors of Yugoslavia. We had bought our tickets from an American tout about 30 minutes before kickoff without knowing where we would be sitting. Perhaps the two Dutch kids had done the same.

"Ser-bi-a, Ser-bi-a," chanted our section. They whistled in unison so loudly that our friends watching on television back at our rented farmhouse near Cahors could hear. Spending much of the game with his back to the pitch, a puffily overweight man in his late 20s or early 30s commanded the Yugoslavian fans in their chants. He wore an army hat. The fans, mainly young men, responded to his directions like members of a platoon.

At half time Rich and I went to find some food, leaving his girlfriend, Anne-Marie, and her sister Honor behind. We bought a couple of Mars and Starburst ice creams and wandered around, people watching. Soon we were cop watching as a squad of armed riot police ran past us toward Gate 15, where we were sitting. We jogged after them.

Taking the steps to our section two and three at a time, we arrived to find the lower area of the seating populated mostly by riot police. Anne-Marie and Honor were not where we had left them. Like many peaceful Yugoslavian fans, they were bunched up at the top of the section.

"You missed the fight," Honor said.

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It was impossible to decipher exactly what sparked it. "The Serbs just turned on the Dutch guys and started beating them up," Honor said. After that, the fighting spread right up to where we had been sitting. It wasn't too serious. No knives or bottles or cracked skulls. Red-shirted stewards had arrived soon after it broke out, trying to separate the combatants, Honor said. And after a while, the police arrived. They stayed for the rest of the match. The Serbian chants continued to the end, and the longer the match went on, the more insults the Yugoslavian fans hurled at their cheery Dutch counterparts.

In stoppage time, with the score at 1-1, Holland drove the ball into the back of the Yugoslavian net. Short of a miracle, the game was over. How would the Yugoslavian fans react?

"Time to go," Honor said, prodding me with her elbow. I didn't want to miss a possible miracle by the Yugoslavians. We stayed until the final whistle and a corridor of riot police saw that we got out safely.

"What's Radovan Karadzic got to do with football?" asked my friend Kate, a thoughtful woman who works at the BBC, after we returned to the farmhouse at three in the morning. Good question. The answer should be, "Nothing."

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But it's not that simple. At the World Cup, there's a thin line between nationalism and internationalism, between the Serbian fans who swap jerseys with each other to make it harder for the police to identify them and the Yugoslavian players who swap jerseys with the Dutch players in a token of friendship even after their loss to the orange masters. The World Cup has the unique ability to bring together the people of different countries in the shared love of a game that can, at least for a month, seem like the most important thing in their lives. Unfortunately, it can also be a forum for ugly nationalism. For many fans, politics are a lighthearted way of championing the national team -- but sometimes it doesn't seem so innocent. As we watched the Yugoslavian team lose, its government was again clinging onto Serbian turf by bombing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. "Ko-so-vo," chanted the crowd at one point. I couldn't make out any of the other words.

Of course, it's not the Serbs who have brought most of the supposedly
nationalist violence to France this summer. No one does soccer violence in the
name of their country better than the English. The French have taken note of
this.

We had been late getting to our rented farmhouse in the tiny village of St. Cernin
because we took a few wrong turns on the way past fields of sunflowers and
red-brick churches. Madame Lacaze, the owner, suspected something more sordid
had held us up. "I wondered if they had stopped you at the airport because of
all the hooligans," she said in French, addressing our group of 10 English
and Scottish guests. Not only have the English exported hooligans to France, they have also exported the word. The French for "hooligan" is hooligan.

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Tony Blair is right, of course: Most English fans, at home or abroad, are
perfectly good-natured in their fanatical support of their national team.
For example, not an hour goes by in this farmhouse without someone's discussing the World
Cup. We have estimated that about a quarter of all our conversations have
evolved around football. The five women in the group are as vocal as the men.
When the second-round games finished and the World Cup had two days off, one of our group wondered aloud, "What are we going to do?"

The night before we flew to France from London, some of us
gathered around the television at Kate and her boyfriend John's apartment in
the East End to watch England play Colombia. When England scored, John hit the
mute button and we could hear the roaring from the Hayfield pub around the
corner.

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The pub was packed, even after the game. Women wrapped themselves in English
flags and men stood around analyzing the game.

"It was brilliant. We were very nervous but after the first goal we relaxed,"
said Tony, 26, a sound engineer and a lager man.

And how important was the match?

"It's life or death really, innit?"

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It sounds like the Hayfield is a good place to watch England play.

"You should have been here last time, for the Romania match. When England
scored, this couple started having sex on the table," said 23-year-old Antonio, an events promoter and sometime fan of Italy, thanks to his
first-generation Italian immigrant father.

Like a lot of soccer fans, Antonio is an amateur sociologist. "The World
Cup unifies the country," he said, grinning over his pint of lager at the
Hayfield. "With the Church of England in decline people are looking for some
new beliefs. Football is something we can look to now."

The Church of English Football might have been flourishing that Friday night
as England beat Colombia 2-0, but on Tuesday the 30th, the holy had to face their
great Satan -- Argentina. For some reason, that absurd little victory in the
Falklands war still lingers in the hearts of many British people. Perhaps
it's because Argentina repeatedly does to England on the football field what
it couldn't do in the Falklands: It wins.

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"The French made the weapons the Argentinians used in the Falklands,"
announced Sylvain, Madame Lacaze's son, as he sat around our table watching
the match with us on Tuesday evening. We had the TV set up so that all 10 of
us, plus three Frenchmen and an Albanian working for Sylvain, could watch while we
ate barbecued chicken, lamb and sausages and poured copiously from clay jugs of red wine.

"You're a brave man, Sylvain," I told him.

"Allez l'Argentine!" he called out, jumping up from his seat. So I obliged by
chasing him around the farmhouse grounds.

He gloated when the referee gave Argentina an
absurd penalty against England after a couple
of minutes. He cawed when they equalized after England went 2-1 up. He shouted
with joy when Argentina won on penalties after extra time. As we played table
tennis afterward, I remember his bringing up the Falklands again. But that
was after a few too many jugs of wine had been emptied.

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It's an odd thing for me to feel so warmly toward the English team. In World
Cups past I've been delighted at their failures and infuriated by their
successes. It's a Scottish thing. But this year the team was different. They
had Michael Owen, surely the most exciting player in the world -- and only
18 years old. And they had David Beckham, creative and dashing and regularly
referred to in the sports pages of serious British newspapers as the future
Mr. Posh Spice. Like their teammates, they're extremely likable lads, on and
off the pitch.

On Thursday night I dreamed about their boss, the England coach, Glenn
Hoddle. He stood in a crowd with his girlfriend. I touched him on the shoulder
and he ignored me. He was tall, dressed as ever in a running suit and clearly
depressed. I tried again and he turned round. "You did a great job," I said.
"I'm very sorry for your loss." He smiled. "Thanks," he said.

The dream makes me wonder if the tipsy Antonio might have been onto
something. Recently, the British have warmed to events that they can share
equally. First came the jubilation of the Labor Party's victory in the general
election just over a year ago. Princess Diana's death then bound the country
together in ways that had people talking about a Britain forever changed. And
now the fate of the Scottish and English teams had millions of people taking
days off work and streets deserted.

"The casualty rooms will be packed right now," said Lade, a doctor, just a
few minutes after England lost. "I remember in Euro '96 (the European
Championships) when England lost. We didn't have a single beep for two hours,
and then after the final whistle it was pandemonium."

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I could be wrong but the evidence here in sleepy St. Cernin doesn't suggest
that French emergency rooms will be facing the same rush if and when France
is eliminated.

After watching the first half of the second round-game between France and
Paraguay at the farmhouse on Sunday, all 10 of us piled into two cars
and drove to nearby Labastide-Murat so that we could watch the game at a local
cafe and share the joys and agonies of the local French fans.

As we drove through St. Cernin we noticed a group of old men playing
petanque, the French version of bowling. Their national team was facing
elimination or entry to the quarterfinals and they were more concerned with
getting their patterned steel balls closest to the little wooden ball.

We parked in the main square and walked into the cafe. A young woman sat
alone drinking a beer. Two old men sat together in silence. A woman stood
behind the bar and a dog slowly came out from behind her to see who had
arrived.

"Hello," I said. "Do you have a television? We were hoping to watch the
match."

"No, I'm sorry," she said.

"Is there another place we could try?" I asked.

"Everywhere is closed," she said. "But tomorrow you could try the hotel
around the corner."

Maybe the game just didn't matter to people here. Maybe they are more
respectful of Sunday traditions than the British. Maybe everyone was watching
at home. Whatever the case, the France vs. Paraguay game was certainly not a
focal point for national togetherness the way the England vs. Colombia game was
at the Hayfield pub. And, I suspect, in every pub in England.

That's exhibit A in the case to prove that the French don't care as much
about football as the Brits do. Here's exhibit B: It was breathtakingly easy
to buy tickets for the match in Toulouse. The four of us had no idea if we
would just have to sit in a bar and watch the game, after traveling more than
three hours to Toulouse. As it was, we were deluged with offers of tickets and
couldn't believe our luck when we bought four tickets for face value, at $45
each. I was prepared to pay $300. OK, so it was just Holland vs. Yugoslavia, but
if the game had been held in Manchester, say, scalped tickets at face value
would have been a fantasy.

And finally, exhibit C: Opera. The authorities in Montpellier set up an
outdoor opera production at the opposite end of the town square from the
massive screen that showed the England vs. Colombia game to the straggling
English fans. "Every now and then there would be a lull in play and we'd hear
some soprano burst through at the top of her voice," said Anne-Marie. Let's get this clear: If the World Cup
is ever held in Britain again, I can personally guarantee that there will be
no opera performances going on anywhere near one of these large screens
erected for ticketless fans.

Nationalistic passion counts for nothing, though, when you lose. France is
in. England is out. Scotland has long since ignored the pleas of its
official pop song -- "Don't Come Home Too Soon." So we have to find someone
else to cheer for.

Many teams seem unworthy of our support. Every reason we can come up with for
not supporting a team is political -- and petty. Croatia is unacceptable to
Rich, who calls them "glorified Serbs" and notes their collaboration with the
Nazis and their own recent war crimes. Argentina is an obvious no-no. Germany?
Uh, don't think so. Brazil -- well, their police kill their street children
with apparent tacit approval and they don't protect their rain forests. France
had a collaborative government during the War. Italy had Mussolini.

So that leaves Holland and Denmark. Yawn. Politics may creep into football,
but who wants a PC World Cup? Hardly anyone would qualify. So we'll probably
pull for France, Brazil or Italy for the rest of the tournament. After all,
what's Radovan Karadzic got to do with football?


Matthew McAllester

Matther McAllester is a reporter for Newsday.

MORE FROM Matthew McAllester

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