SAN FRANCISCO July 8 -- They are howling and screaming in France right now, singing, "Allez les Bleus," spraying everybody in sight with bottles of champagne, embracing total strangers, belting out the Marseillaise in full, corny "Casablanca" mode and generally trampling underfoot the last vestiges of their Gallic reserve. I know, because I just got back from France 10 minutes ago. Well, it wasn't really France -- it was the Cafe Bastille in San Francisco. But it might as well have been. And I've got the champagne in my hair to prove it.
France just defeated Croatia, 2-1, to advance to its first World Cup final, against mighty Brazil Sunday. And if the frenzied behavior of the hundreds of French people who mobbed the Bastille and poured bubbly on their high-thread-count cotton shirts and spilled over into the alley and ran into the street after the game shouting with joy is any indication, the land of Cartesian lucidity is finally starting to take this World Cup business with the same psychotic and ecstatic seriousness that the rest of the world -- not counting the U.S. -- does.
Not counting the U.S. It is precisely because Americans don't care about the most passionately watched sporting event in the world that this year I embarked once again on the Grand World Cup Eurotrash Bar Tour. Four years ago, I realized that the only way to catch World Cup fever was to find the rest of the world. And that really isn't very hard -- you don't even have to leave your neighborhood to do it. That's why God invented bars.
The Grand World Cup Eurotrash Bar Tour satisfies the requirements of each of the four basic daily food groups: watching sports, drinking in bars, observing different cultures and leering surreptitiously at members of the opposite sex -- a disproportionately high number of whom, if this is of any interest to you, and I think it is, come from the genetically gifted nations of France, Italy, Brazil and Argentina.
Not only does the Tour satisfy these requirements, it does so in style. It allows one to watch, from the hooligan-free comfort of a bar stool, a sporting event compared to whose global import the Super Bowl and the World Series look like tiddlywinks contests for toddlers. It allows one to indulge in depraved, Bukowski-like early-morning drinking under the acceptable guise of being a Bohemian Sportsman. And it affords fascinating multicultural insights into Hectoring, Vaunting, Wailing and Teeth-Gnashing as practiced by the diverse peoples of the Earth.
It is, in short, an entirely satisfactory pastime. As I constantly tell doubting philistine friends, even if you think watching soccer is like watching the grass grow, it's worth cultivating a taste for it every four years, just to take the Tour.
I first discovered the joys of the Bar Tour during the 1994 World Cup, which was held in, among other American sites, Palo Alto, 45 minutes south of San Francisco. I went to five games, usually taking the train, which was a blast. I can't remember whether the omnipresent yellow-clad, singing and drum-pounding Brazilians were selling caipirinhas (their national drink, made from cachaza, a raunchy sugar-cane hooch of knee-shaking potency) in the station or at the stadium, but by the time I walked into Stanford Stadium a warm glow like that of a Gilberto Gil song enveloped me. Having just returned from a trip there, I was already predisposed to root for the Brazilians, and the caipirinha buzz closed the deal.
But I couldn't attend all of the games in person -- and that's where North Beach came in. In San Francisco, ground zero for Italian soccer madness was and is a joint on Columbus called the Steps of Rome. Under normal circumstances, the Steps of Rome is frequented by indolent young European gentlemen, given to wearing expensive loafers without socks and apparently freed from the vulgar constraints of remunerative toil, whose sole aim in life appears to be scoring with any reasonably attractive young woman unfortunate enough to fall within their baleful, car-chain-twirling orbit. During the World Cup, however, these pointless mayflies suddenly acquire a new and higher purpose. They become patriotic soccer aficionados, honoring their country's flag in song and verse and analyzing the on-field action with an intelligence no one would previously have suspected they possessed.
A trusty sidekick and I checked out the Steps of Rome in '94. It was fabu, filled with much rapid muttering and angry hand gesticulations. (By contrast, the '98 French seem given to all-out, nonstop bellowing.) But the essence of the Grand World Cup Eurotrash Bar Tour is mobility. The point is to become pickled and hoarse in one den of maniacal nationalist soccer iniquity, then drive wildly across town to become even more pickled and hoarser in a completely different den of maniacal nationalist soccer iniquity. So after watching Italy play in the Steps of Rome, we headed over to the Bahia, a cavernous club on Market Street packed to the brim with Brazilians and wannabe Brazilians.
The wannabe phenomenon pervades the entire experience of watching the World Cup in America. As I rode my bike away from the Steps of Rome after Tuesday's Brazil-Holland match, I was almost run over by two horn-honking bozos who were waving a huge Brazilian flag out the window of their truck. I yelled "Great game!" to them, to which they responded, "Yeah, it was a nail-biter!" If those "Brazilians" weren't two beer-truck-delivery guys from San Jose, my name is Antonio Sequeiros de Homeboy. But it's not just the bad imitations -- there's something vicarious built into the very gestalt of watching the Cup here. For no matter how much an American may cheer on one team or another, no matter how knowledgeable you may be about the game, there will always be something secondary and vicarious about your passion compared to that of the 55-year-old German tourist sitting next to you whose whole life seems to be going down the tubes with each pass.
But the vicariousness is part of the fun. Getting away from total fanaticism and enjoying other peoples' is a relief. My World Cup-like passion is for the 49ers, and watching them play in the Super Bowl can be almost painful. On second-and-28 during Joe Montana's final drive in the fabled '89 Bengals game, I still remember feeling a weird sensation of icy dread as Jerry Rice broke to the left over the middle and reached out for the ball, a whiff of some potential unhappiness that went down deeper than I wanted it to or ever thought it would, just for a game. No American can ever feel anything like that for Holland, or Argentina, or Brazil -- probably not even for the U.S. soccer team. The passion just doesn't go down that deep; the sport is ultimately too foreign. But you can soak it up from the people around you. You soak up their joy, their tears, their utter and reverent attention. And you have to respect it, just as a European or South American or African or Japanese must respect the hallowed, rapt silence in a small-town Midwestern bar in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. It's what sports is all about.
The foreignness of the World Cup is at once frustrating and part of its allure. This year, that foreignness was heightened for me by the experience of watching a number of 5:30 a.m. games on Univision, the American Spanish-language network that broadcasts every game. Dazed and confused at that ridiculous hour, still in bed, the incomprehensible jabber of the announcers somehow conveyed to me the huge Otherness of the whole thing, an almost surreal sense of how much it mattered to so many people. People in tiny towns in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, in shanties outside Lagos, in plush apartments in Paris and impoverished Calabrian hamlets. The Spanish words, tumbling out of the set in the gray light of half-morning, somehow evoked this unseen and enormous audience -- and inspired me to take my own dilettantish interest to a higher level.
Last weekend, my Bar Tour pal and I decided to go back to the Steps of Rome to watch the Italy-France quarterfinal. I called the place up to make sure they were televising it. "We open at 6:30 a.m.," the guy said. "People get here early." I figured since the game started at 7:30, I'd better get to the bar pretty close to opening time. I hopped on my bike and showed up at 6:40.
Big mistake. Every seat was taken and there were already two dozen people standing in the street. They had started arriving, I was told, at 4. When my even tardier friend arrived, the crowd was ridiculous. Ethnic ambience is nice, but visibility is nicer. We gave up and headed across the street to the Caffe Puccini, where we found seats in the back, 60 feet or so from a 27-inch screen. After the proprietress grumpily moved a tree, we were able to glimpse tiny figures moving about and a microscopic pellet that was the ball. I seriously regretted not bringing my binoculars. Even the company was nothing to write home about: We found ourselves sitting next to an older American woman, apparently an eccentric poetess or some such, who promptly favored us with a high-flown speech about how "this is such a beautiful game, because it uses every part of your body." Coffee alone did not possess the mind-altering qualities required to make us tolerate this kind of talk at 7:30. But we stuck it out for a half, during which time we both realized that despite our intentions, we hated the defensive way Italy was playing and had switched allegiance to France. We avoided making this sentiment public, however.
At halftime, we scurried over to Gino and Carlo's, where we could actually see. The crowd was about half Italian and half American and feelings were accordingly not running as high as at the Steps or the Puccini. Emboldened by a couple of 8:30 a.m. Bloody Marys, we cheered openly when the French won on penalty kicks. Maybe because the Italians had clearly been dominated, or maybe just because of the coin-toss way the game ended, there wasn't as much vocal misery as we'd thought.
When we went by the Steps of Rome a few minutes later, the air had rapidly gone out of the Italian balloon. One young blade on the sidewalk had quickly switched gears and, making the best of a bad situation, was chatting up an American girl. "If only it wasn't the fucking French!" she groaned as he nodded like an amiable spider. "And I say that as a French major!"
(Now that Italy is out, their fans seem to have adopted an anybody-but-Brazil approach. I watched the great Holland-Brazil game in the Steps of Rome yesterday, and an Italian guy said, "Most of the Italians are pulling for the Dutch." Whether this is European solidarity or a desire to not let Brazil establish itself as the definitive all-time greatest soccer country by winning a fifth Cup is unclear.)
It was time to go to Brazil, for the Denmark game. We drove to the Bahia, paid the extortionate door charge and entered a different world. Italian pop was replaced by blaring samba. European women who carried their style in a kind of arrogant immobility were replaced by Brazilian women who couldn't stop rotating the lower parts of their bodies. Lattes were replaced by caipirinhas. And soccer as a passion was replaced by soccer as a second body.
Watching a game in the Bahia is like being inside soccer's womb, or its id. You could nurse off soccer in there. Brazilians are soccer, and they know it. Their self-confidence is massive, their enthusiasm as lilting and irresistible as their team's dancing attack. (You have to see a game in person to appreciate that they really do seem to samba as they bring the ball down the field.) We were sitting on a hard floor, jammed in among hundreds of people -- you don't realize just how big Brazil's middle class is until you see how many Brazilian expats there are. When plucky -- and underrated -- Denmark scored two minutes into the game to take the lead, and the dozen or so face-painted Danes who had braved the enemy territory began to dance and sing, the Brazilian guy sitting next to me just shrugged. "No problem," he said. The Danes gave the Brazilians some pretty big problems, but in the end he was right: Brazil won.
The Brazilians are the reigning champions of both soccer and soccer partying, but the French, who are coming late to this madness, may just give them a run for their money on both counts. The Brazilian team should win, but it is not invulnerable. And the French fans are wild! Not only do they boast the finest repertory of songs and chants -- including one, weirdly, sung to the tune of "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener" -- but they hang on the game as if it were a baby dangling off a cliff. In the Bastille, they cheered and screamed on every single change of possession -- something I haven't seen any other fans do -- as if their personal fates hung on every bounce, every errant pass, every half-stride.
You could call that naiveté, but you could also call it true belief. Maybe even love. Welcome to the world's party, France -- and thanks for putting up with us crashers.