Football: World Cup - We of little faith left to wander with lost souls

At Large In France - Toulouse
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The Independent Online
NOT ONLY was it semi-impossible to get into the ground - not unless you wanted to fork out pounds 200 for a ticket (and there were plenty of takers at that price), it was hard enough to find a screen anywhere in Toulouse to watch the game.

I knew the giant screen at the Village Occitan had been taken down, not to be put up again until after the big match. But I did not expect Le Carpaccio and Cafe Wilson to cravenly unplug their televisions too. You could watch USA-Iran the day before, but not England-Romania.

Fortunately, the H2O American Sports Live Bar, on the Rue des Trois Journees, was brave enough to keep its sets switched on and provide a home-from- home for England refugees. Why this place should be called "H2O" I've no idea, because water is about the one drink it doesn't have. "We're not going to lose this," asserted Phil with serene confidence. "The worst we'll get out of it is a draw."

There was a lot of heated discussion over team selection. Everyone thought Beckham and Owen should be on the field and not on the bench, and Sheringham (lazy) and Anderton (a crippled donkey) off. Basically, anyone who was on should be off and anyone who was off should be on.

We were all staunchly pro-Gazza too - the bring-him-on-for-the-last-20- minutes tendency. "Gazza is a game-turner," reckoned Tom, "we don't have too many of those. But Hoddle won't have anyone who doesn't fit his holier- than-thou lifestyle." The anti-Hoddle tirade ironically finished with a poignant neo-Hoddlian, "You've got to have faith though - you've got no choice."

It was some time around the middle of the second half, when we were really up against it, that I started feeling physically sick. I'd only had one beer and a fruit juice cocktail, but with all the giant pitchers sliding across my table, I'd probably done an awful lot of involuntary drinking. The combination of staggering outside for some air and England scoring produced an instantaneous recovery. A miracle had taken place. And then God finally died.

"Subdued" would be an overstatement of the post-match mood: "funereal" might do it. There was only one consoling thought, offered by a Manchester United fan, who had been vainly trying to explain to a local woman why he followed United: "He'll have to bring back Gazza now."

In the bleak main square of the Capitole, where the England supporters poured back in from the stadium, every bar had closed, but even if they'd all been open I doubt it would have brightened things up much. One poor soul tried to start up a chorus of "Super Michael Owen", but found himself singing alone. There is no sadder sound than a fan singing alone.

Tim, a cameraman, came up to me and said forlornly, "I'm supposed to be filming the party - the fete. What am I going to shoot now?"

Outside the railway station, someone, possibly Arabic, was trying to account for the disaster to a small bunch of England supporters. "Two defensive errors," he said, accurately enough, then pointed up at the sky more mysteriously: "God, it is his fault." "God!" spluttered one of the English. "Hod, you mean." We had lost our faith.

The night train back to Paris was roughly an hour late, but England had gone right off the tracks. The passengers sat slumped, crushed, defeated: the living dead. That train was as lively as a coffin on wheels. The gendarmes at Montparnasse heartlessly shepherded us down into the metro. I didn't want to go on the metro, but they didn't want us wandering the streets in case we should depress anyone. I managed to sneak out of a side exit. A small, balding, pleasant young fellow in glasses stopped me to ask what all the police were doing surrounding the station. I told him about what had happened and he slipped a sympathetic hand around my shoulder and offered to buy me a drink. I told him I was too tired.

"I have a little place where you can sleep if you want," he said, gazing into my eyes. My reputation for shacking up with other guys had obviously preceded me. It was the best offer I had, but I turned it down in favour of a visit to Montparnasse cemetery, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge Gainsbourg are buried, to commune with other lost souls. Le sport rhymes with la mort.

I remember that in one of Victor Hugo's books, after a devastating tragedy, he leaves the page blank, as a sign of respect. The rest is silence.

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