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FRENCH IMPRESSIONS: Three Times Staff Writers Reflect on Covering Soccer’s Premiere Event

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the corner of Rue de Beaune and Rue de Verneuil in this city’s Saint-Germain neighborhood, amid all the art galleries, fashion boutiques and restaurants, there is a tiny antique shop with a nautical theme.

Here you can find gleaming brass sextants, telescopes and ship’s bells, shining copper divers’ helmets, models of galleons and square-riggers and tramp steamers, paintings from the days of sail, books about the sea, flotsam and jetsam of all sorts dredged up from the tides of time that washed over France and its foreign outposts.

And looking down with a glassy eye from high on one wall, the last thing you would expect to find in a nautical setting--the stuffed head of what I presumed to be an albatross.

Given Coleridge, ancient mariners and the general superstition of the average sailor, this seemed an odd choice of decoration.

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Might as well hang a foreclosure sign in the window as an albatross on the wall.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me while staring at my feathered find that the France 98 World Cup has had an albatross slung around its neck too.

More than one, in fact.

A tournament that promised much delivered little.

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The organization of USA ’94 was missing. The passion of Italia ’90 was nowhere to be found. The drama of Mexico ’86 was in short supply. The warmth of Spain ’82 was entirely absent.

After covering five such tournaments, this one, sad to say, ranks fifth in my collection of World Cup memories.

There were memorable games, certainly--England’s brave battle with Argentina, Denmark’s uplifting encounter with Brazil, the United States’ bizarre clash with Iran, France’s dazzling display against Saudi Arabia--but overall France 98 failed to raise the passions as a World Cup should.

Everything seemed simply too programmed. Spontaneity was in short supply. The sport, at this level at least, appears to have been taken over by the corporate world. Sponsors and television rule the day. The average fan in the street no longer counts.

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Even the celebrations that followed France on its march to the championship seemed staged. The partying was all too forced. Almost as if people were reacting as they thought they should, rather than as they really wanted.

Or perhaps I’m simply getting old.

France 98 was beset by too many problems. The transportation strikes, English hooliganism that marred the early rounds, the savage beating of a French gendarme by German thugs, the ticket scandals, the confused and ultimately mediocre quality of the refereeing, the outright cheating by players who faked fouls.

All these added up to a negative impression.

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Thirty-two teams is too many for a world championship, but that genie, unfortunately, will never be stuffed back in the bottle.

Five weeks is too long for a tournament, but condensing it by even a few days is only going to increase logistical problems.

The hooliganism--a societal problem, not a soccer problem--is not going to evaporate unless authorities adopt the line I saw taken in Saint-Etienne.

Walking to the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium from the railway station on the morning of the England-Argentina match, I came across five Argentine “fans,” looking for trouble. They were bare to the waist, draped in blue and white flags, tattooed, malodorous and a long way from sober.

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I watched a couple of them jump into the street and purposely stop a car, just for the hell of it.

The reaction of the driver was immensely satisfying to watch. He cut the engine, got out of the car, ignored the taunts and merely opened the car’s rear door.

Out leaped a full-grown and obviously well-trained Rottweiler. The driver turned the dog loose on the five troublemakers, who fled in five directions. He then got back in the car with his dog and drove off.

I wanted to applaud, but the cursing and shaken Argentines were still nearby and I didn’t have a Rottweiler.

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There is a lot of nonsense talked about sport bringing people together. These days, it seems to do just as much to drive them apart--luxury boxes, staggering ticket prices, insolent athletes.

The increasingly wide chasm between the haves and the have-nots of the world were starkly reflected during France 98.

The Stade de France in Saint-Denis, site of Sunday’s final, cost $430 million. It is situated in a downtrodden area where unemployment among young adults stands at 28% and crime is rising.

Local residents could not afford the price of a ticket to any of the games at the stadium, but as one youth said wistfully, “You still hear the music and the cries.”

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There were many such examples. A couple of scenes seen above ground and below:

Below: A woman on her knees in the Concorde Metro station, unmoving, her head downcast, a little girl, perhaps a 2-year-old, asleep on a mat in front of her. A paper cup in front of both with a few francs at the bottom. Begging.

Above: Tickets for the Brazil-France final were being offered on the black market for $3,000 apiece.

Below: On the Champs-Elysees, a street-stained youngster no older than 8, legs folded beneath him, plays a small blue accordion on the pavement of Paris’ most famous street. The paper cup is there too.

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High above: A France 98 cocktail party is in full swing, the champagne is flowing nicely. From the balcony, the view over the city is stunning. No one glancing down even sees the small boy.

Haves and have-nots.

World Cups and paper cups.

Soccer used to be the sport of the people. It gradually has been taken away from them.

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One final vignette.

The walls of the Saint-Denis Port de Paris Metro station outside the Stade de France have been covered with larger-than-life, full-length portraits of Brazil’s top players in their sun-yellow uniforms.

On the evening of the Brazil-Scotland opening game June 10, three Scots, each three-kilts to the wind, stumbled down the station passageway.

One glanced up and spotted the portrait of Ronaldo looming next to him. His reaction, in the wake of a 2-1 Scottish loss, was immediate. He shoulder-charged the image, then bounced back painfully off the wall.

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Might as well tilt at windmills as try to change the order of things. The World Cup won’t do it and the paper cups can’t.


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