Football: If we lose now blame it on my denim jacket

At Large In France
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The Independent Online
J'ACCUSE! The Saudi Arabia team have had cash and credit cards ripped off from their base in Marcq-en-Baroeuil. The place is, by all accounts, an alcohol-free zone and impenetrable to women, but not immune to the shadowy criminal fraternity. The police are pursuing inquiries. But what I really want to know is this: who pinched my denim jacket at St-Raphael station?

While the British government is very decently looking into compensating Marseilles for all the damage done to the city (which is fine, always providing we go halves with the Tunisian government), maybe the French government could start looking into compensating me for my denim jacket. I should stress that we are not talking just any denim jacket here. This is a genuine Paul Smith, faded,with lining. Apart from anything else, if the temperature drops, I'm done for. Plus there was a sentimental attachment. That jacket has been everywhere with me. In fact, I would call it my lucky jacket, because while I've been wearing it England haven't lost a game in this contest. Now anything could happen.

I admit that I had already lost my address book in Paris (sorry to anyone expecting a call or a postcard). And, in fairness, that may have been down to sheer personal negligence. I don't see ruthless address-book gangs roaming the boulevards. I'm not asking for compensation for all those missing addresses. But - and this is a big but - that denim jacket was targeted. Some low-life had his eye on it. And I only had to take mine off it for an instant at the station in St-Raphael and it was gone. The perfect crime.

So it was that in the lovely city of Montpellier, where I had been planning to visit the university campus, I went instead to see the "forces of order" as they have become known during the World Cup. After my showdown with the riot police in Marseilles, not to mention the dust-up with the waiter in St Tropez (my conscience is clear on this, he started it), I had to steel myself to venture in. I didn't know if they might have my picture on file with the caption "fauteur de troubles" under it. I knew for sure they had my fiche from the Hotel de la Gare. I hadn't had to fill out one of these police forms at a hotel since the Day of the Jackal era.

"The police, they insist," said the woman at reception, showing me an insistent notice from the police. "The man before you, he was English. From Wolverhampton." She pronounced Wolverhampton as if it were Pentonville or Parkhurst High Security Wing. "He had two enormous black eyes. He didn't fill in `profession'. He didn't need to. He had `Hooligan' written all over him."

She eyed my passport. "Ha!" she exclaimed. "You are English too! And were you in Marseilles?" The net was tightening. By 11 a.m. there had been 294 crimes in Montpellier. I know because they gave me a ticket with that number on and asked me to wait with it till my number came up.

Over the next hour or so, the forces of order passed by, having conversations in which the phrase "after the match" came up a lot. One flic came flying out of the interview room showing off a ticket to last night's Italy-Cameroon game.

I now had a fair idea how to get myself off the hook if it came to the crunch. I finally tracked down a M. Aquilina at the commissariat, who couldn't speak of events that had taken place in St-Raphael or anywhere other than Montpellier. "OK, then," I said. "What has been the impact on crime of the World Cup in Montpellier?" "None," he replied. "Zero. There has been no impact."

"How do you account for the dozen or so guys in camouflage kit and brandishing automatic weapons at the station then?" "That is why there has been no impact."

I came across the mayor, Georges Freche, playing in a "baby-foot" (table- football) tournament on the Esplanade. "This is a little boring," he said. "Maybe we need some England fans to liven things up." I introduced myself. "Don't get me wrong," he said. "I am very fond of the English. I have not forgotten Churchill. Let's not get Marseilles out of proportion."

I told him about my missing denim jacket. Since he is a professor of Roman law when he is not being mayor, I duly reached for my pen and notebook, which were in my back pocket, to take it down as he said something along the lines that, alas, there were villains everywhere. But the pen and the notebook had gone. The World Cup thieves had struck again. I was lucky they hadn't taken my denim jeans as well while they were at it.