World Cup 98: Paris embraces a love of change

At Large In France
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The Independent Online
WHAT A skunk! And a traitor to boot. He should have been standing four square, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the rest of the nation at Lens on Friday night. Instead of that he faintheartedly catches the train back to Paris and watches the game at a comfortable brasserie off the boulevard St Germain, while having dinner with a tall dark Corsican woman named Marie. The very idea is scandalous. This man brings shame on the otherwise impeccable name of the fanatical England supporter. Today I reveal the identity of this turncoat and deserter.

Me. Mea culpa. I plead guilty as charged. My only argument in mitigation is post-traumatic stress syndrome. After the Toulouse debacle, the tension in Lens was too much for me. I couldn't face another major let-down. I had to cover myself with a sidebet on dinner in Paris. Apparently General de Gaulle was also prosecuted for desertion by the Vichy government and, like him, I am happy to return to the fold now we have been liberated.

It was a night of magical metamorphosis: from colourless chrysalis into gorgeous butterfly, it was England unbound, born-again England, an England more like Brazil than England, almost more like Brazil than Brazil. A night when joie de vivre and self-belief returned to England. The status of English bystanders instantly shot up. "My God!" gasped Marie, "you really know how to play, n'est-ce pas." She had been counting on either France or Italy (she is half-Italian) to win, but now she too was having to think in terms of side-bets. At the table next to us, a young American couple were celebrating the woman's birthday, but they were toasting England and wishing me congratulations. Having been denounced as a thug for the last week or so and persecuted by police and seeing anxious mothers remove children from my path and warn them that they had better behave or the Anglais would get them, I was happy to share, for a change, in the reflected glory.

I began to have an inkling what it was that made the Brazilian fans so relentlessly joyful. On Saturday night it was the Brazilians turn to party. I tried and failed to get into that match, and my friend Andy Coburn who did get in and had probably the best seat in the Parc des Princes, at the Chilean goal end in the first half, phoned me afterwards to say that when the history of this World Cup is finally written, this is the one that will go down as the match of matches, and he was sorry that I missed out.

I ended up watching the first half in the rain on the giant screen outside the Hotel de Ville along with a thousand Brazilians, a scattering of Chileans, and at least two impostors. I was as impressed by the style and panache of a couple of young Brazilian spectators as by the flair of their team. They wore the classic yellow and green shirts, with bandanas around their heads, and had a couple of stripes in the same colours painted on their cheeks, just to avoid confusion about their identity. One had massive curly fair hair almost a la Valerrama, the other a trim beard. They mingled with the crowd, and every time Brazil scored, they would throw themselves on the nearest available women (there were many) and passionately hug and kiss them. And then move on, to await the next goal. I eventually lost them in the crush.

I spent the second half at an Irish bar in the Latin Quarter, but coming back to my apartment on the rue St Martin, I was drawn to the unmistakable samba rhythms of drums and whistles not far from the Centre Beaubourg. On a platform in the square a hundred or so Brazilians were pulsating and laughing. That was when I caught sight of the same two bandana'd guys with the hair and the beard. My Portuguese being practically non-existent, I was wondering what to say to them when I realised they seemed to be talking in French.

"Lucky for me you speak French," I said.

"This is because we are French," laughed the hair.

"Then why are you dressed up as Brazilians?" I said in my naivety.

"It is because girls can never refuse anything to Brazilians," said the beard. "Especially Brazilian girls."

The hair explained to me that they weren't interested in le foot so much as in la fete and the point of the exercise was to grab as many women as possible in one night. On Saturday their count was into the twenties. "But if Brazil reach the final that'll be nothing."

Paris has evolved significantly since the competition's start.: "What is the feminine of `assis devant la tele a regarder le foot' (sitting in front of the TV watching football)?" asked a typical first- round joke. The answer is not "assise" (technically the feminine form) but "standing up in the kitchen doing the cooking." Now statistics have been published in Le Figaro showing that women are as interested in the World Cup as men in France (over 50 per cent). The two charlatans have wised up to this fact. At the start of the whole thing they were hanging out in the bars which publicised the absence of TV screens to attract a female clientele. Now, in the second round, they are dressing up as Brazilians.

Maybe if we beat Argentina they'll be dressing up as Brits. Unlikely, I know, but Paris is full of miracles.