- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

I knew it was serious when I saw Colin with an English flag tied around his shoulders, cape-style: This was World Cup madness. Living in France, I was being properly introduced to the championship that I'd been insulated from in the United States, with our Super Bowl and "World" Series. England had beaten Argentina earlier in the day, and my friend Colin, a British expatriate, had been celebrating ever since. By celebrating I mean drinking, strutting around with his flag-cape, and shouting English football songs to squeamish French passers-by.
Paris has been transformed from a city gripped by politics to one consumed with soccer. A few weeks ago Parisians were discussing the second-place victory of extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential primary elections, and his subsequent defeat in the final. Now I'm being indundated with World Cup commentary from co-workers and friends. Enormous faces of star players greet me from posters in the subway. The same people who wouldn't be caught dead uttering the word "football" are now placing bets.
My crash course began in earnest when I returned to Paris from a recent trip to the United States. I was in my office. At 1:30 p.m. sharp, all activity ceased. Chairs swiveled. And all eyes turned to the giant-screen TV on the wall that usually broadcasts CNN or a French news channel. Now it was swarming with English and Argentinian men in shorts attacking a soccer ball and each other. The French colleague sitting across from me, bitter that France had tied with Uruguay a few days before, chanted "Argentina" to gall my English colleagues. I asked one whether there were commercials during the game, and he looked at me as if I'd suggested a marching band play through a church service. After England won the match, typically mild-mannered Brits rose out of their chairs, hands raised in glee.
This was nothing compared to the scene later that evening, when I met Colin the super-fan with his flag-cape and several of his buddies. Colin usually blends in fairly easily in his adopted country: He dresses well, his French is perfect, and he's got the harried look common to most Parisians. But football had brought out the wild patriot within. I was greeted with an English team song at top volume.
The French people around us glared. At the next bar his crew repeated the scene, and in the upscale restaurant where we had dinner. The song was an easy one to remember for a group that had been hoisting pints since the afternoon. It went something like this: "La la la, la la la la, la la la. ENGLAND!" The other drinkers at the bar did not appreciate the delicacy of the lyrics. But such is the way at World Cup time.
A couple of days later I had a dinner party and invited a mixed, international crowd: two Brits, two Americans and three French. It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to the hot topic of the day. It turned out that the only person who had watched the matches that day was an American girl. "I loved the Japanese players' haircuts," she said. "Those Argentinians could use some haircuts," I said. "Cute, but the hair's a little out of control." It may not have been expert play-by-play, but we were getting involved.
I actually had my first real exposure to "le football" last summer, when I went to a game between Paris St. Germain and Sochaux, a town in the western region of Alsace. Forget cheerleaders; the crowd chanted fanatically during the whole match, only taking a break at halftime. The fans were about 90 percent male, but the cameraman for the giant screen on the scoreboard inevitably found the supermodel-like women inexplicably in attendance.
We sat behind the goal. The most ardent fans were all around us, seated according to clubs with names like "Boulogne Boys" (for the stadium's location) and "Ultra." Fans carried flags and signs with club logos. One showed a hand with a screaming mouth in the palm. "Toujours fideles," it read: Always loyal.
Absent was the scent of hot dogs and popcorn, the cries of vendors racing up and down the aisles. It seemed spectators didn't want their mouths full while they yelled. A couple of guys with snare drums perched over the entrances, pounding away.
Periodically the crowd stood, arms outstretched, fingers wiggling. "Allez Paris Saint-Germain," they chanted, prompted by guys with bullhorns or microphones. Or "Allez Paris SG" or just "Allez Paris." Even "Let's go." Over and over and over again. Not very original, but exciting nonetheless. The same lyricists must do all the soccer songs; these ditties were relatives of the complex arrangements favored by my English friends. The French fans mixed it up by using different tunes, "Yellow Submarine" being a favorite. As in, "Allez allez allez allez allez allez allez, allez allez allez, allez allez allez." And repeat.
Then there was the actual game: not so exciting. As my friend who went with me said, "The great thing about soccer is that no one has to score for it to be a great game." When pressed, he admitted that this particular match did not fall into the category of "great game." Though indeed, neither team scored until the final two minutes when we were leaving. Thankfully it was Paris with the goal, and we peeked in from the ramp to see the ball hit the net.
During that game, and during the World Cup matches, I maintained what I liked to think of as a certain detachment interest, but not the obssession I saw in my friends. I was bound to break down.
Then the United States played South Korea one morning at 8:30 a.m. Paris time. The office was fairly silent as colleagues sipped coffee. The quiet was broken just after Clint Mathis scored for the Americans. "Yes!" a voice cried ecstatically. It was mine.

Julie Hyman is an American reporter working in Paris.


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