Football: Americans follow the party line

At Large In France

I DON'T know if the Americans will get through to the next round, but they were sure getting through the rounds in the "bar car" of the Montpellier-Paris TGV.

I should stress that this was fans rather than players, but serious and knowledgeable fans, who had seen seven games in six days, no mere cheerleaders for Uncle Sam's army. Pete from Atlanta was going to check out the Louvre first chance he had, but he admitted that the dream of the other guys in his party was to stroll down the Champs Elysees at night with their arms around a 12-pack.

Then, at Valence, Hank got on and made us all feel like soldiers in the Salvation Army. He already had one 12-pack under his belt and was soon working his way steadily through the next. A blues singer by trade, with a band called the Glory Hogs, he had come over to France on a concert tour, seen "a million naked babes on the beach", and changed his mind about going back. He was planning to get off at Lyon, but since the train was going at 200 kmph at the time, he changed his mind on that too.

Jim from Chicago (a trader with Merrill Lynch) was reminiscing about the US-Germany game as we replayed the goals on a video camera they had been filming with. "I thought we came from the land of meat and potatoes, but those Germans must be feeding their guys on something we don't know about, because they're twice the size of ours. It was like watching men playing against boys."

The general consensus was not too optimistic about the Iran game either. "It doesn't matter how much I drink," chipped in Patrick (born in Glasgow, moved to Nashville aged 1), "I still can't see us scoring any goals with a 3-6-1 formation. You can't play like that and expect to win. We all thought that was just a ruse to throw off the Germans. We couldn't believe it when it was for real. Sampson [Steve, the US coach] is sacked when he gets back."

"You know what we need?" said Pete, trying to strike a more positive note. "Better songs. The England fans taught us the songs they sing to annoy the Germans. But `USA all the way' is not going to annoy anybody." Hank, unable to resist the call of duty, made up a few songs on the spot, and proceeded to sing them, at top volume, even without a guitar. "We are going to have our day,/ We are going to make you pay," was one of them. Another was "Iran must die,/ The US will fly." The rest were xenophobic enough to make his early efforts sound like nursery rhymes.

"Don't listen to him," pleaded Jim, who came close to slamming Hank a few times. "He's not representative. The players just want to play. With both teams losing their first game there's a lot on the line, without their having to play politics too. But the fans are putting a lot of pressure on this one."

The Marseilles story had gone down big in the States and their families had been ringing them up anxiously, even when they were in Paris, saying, "Are you OK?" Jason, from Tennessee, wearing a baseball cap on back to front, had a new spin on the troubles. "It wasn't the English who started it - it was the Welsh."

They had run into four Welshmen on the train south who were going there just to stir things up. "They've been passing themselves off as Englishmen, you bet". And it's true that the French, who recognise the Scots because they're all wearing kilts, don't generally discriminate between Welsh and English (they're all Anglais). Marie, from Corsica, who was serving the drinks, conceded that "The English are not all bad."

The talk kept swinging back to politics. "They should have Clinton in the team," said Jason. "He'll score. That guy is worse than a sailor."

I was concerned we were making too much noise in the bar car. But Marie reassured me. "Don't worry, the Colombians are far worse." She gave me her mobile number as we pulled into Paris in case I wanted to talk more about trains and fans. OK, I admit it, I asked her for her number, but she did give it. "Man," whistled Jim as we got off at the Gare de Lyon, "if you're ever out of a job, you'd have a shot at President of the United States."

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