World Cup: Scary choice of gay or hooligan

At Large In France
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The Independent Online
"ARE YOU gay?" Actually, it wasn't a question, it was more like, "You're gay, then."

"What?!" I couldn't quite believe my ears. I'd only met the bloke about ten seconds before.

"Gay - you know, homo, queer."

"No, I'm not gay," I said, nearly choking on my Evian.

"Thank Christ for that," he said. "You don't mind me asking, do you, it's just I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink all night for thinking about it, if I hadn't asked."

We were on the Toulouse night train from Paris and we had ended up in the same sleeper compartment. Just the two of us. I eyed the guy closely as I stood next to him in the corridor, watching the silhouetted landscape flash by. Crewcut, T-shirt, broad grin, early thirties.

"You?" I said.



"No way!," he said. "I'm married. The missus is not too pleased I'm here, either."

We both breathed a sigh of relief. Now we'd totally cleared the air. Neither of us was gay. We were going a hell of a long way to spend several hours in a tight spot with several thousand other guys watching men in shorts, but we weren't gay. We were straight.

"You a hooligan, then?" Neil, from Reading (relegated from First Division this year, after reaching the play-offs the year before), had probably the most direct line in conversation I'd ever come across, and would have been a natural for a job with the Spanish Inquisition. Again, it was more like, "You are a hooligan, I suppose." Serves me right for getting my hair cut short before I came over.

So these are the two options left open to the England fan: gay or hooligan. There is no middle ground. Sadistic violence or homo-eroticism, you choose. Either you beat the living daylights out of any passing citizen, or he'll assume you're bent. Perhaps this is the secret neurosis of every Category C. I couldn't help noticing that World Cup kit was flaunted at the Gay Pride parade in Paris on Saturday, when Ronaldo was voted the sexiest player of the year.

But the question of sexual tendency was not Neil's only anxiety. "Where'd you get a drink around here? I want to get a few beers in before getting my head down."

We soon discovered that this was a dry train. It was going hundreds of miles and taking eight hours to do it and there was not a drop on board. Not even Coke. We couldn't believe it. There were about a thousand England fans on board going down for the match and no bar car. Neil was fuming. "No drink for you - you're a hooligan. They treat you like a hooligan, it's enough to make you start acting like one."

Neil had run into Lennox Lewis on the Eurostar and with his characteristic bluntness (a) got his autograph (b) took his picture and (c) said: "Lennox, you're going to have to lay off the lager, look at the gut on you." The Lewis entourage held their breath, but Lennox benevolently lifted his baggy shirt (misconstrued by Neil as flab) and displayed his perfect six- pack abs to demonstrate that he was, in fact, fighting fit. Neil wasn't wholly satisfied though, since this giant of a man, head and shoulders taller than he was and twice as broad, with hands the size of prize cauliflowers, was going to the Jamaica game in Paris instead of following England down south.

"Lennox," he said, "first you go off to Canada, then you come back, but you're supporting the Reggae Boyz. You have got to get yourself sorted!"

As we bedded down for the night - Neil on one side of the couchette (or "courgette" as he called it) still complaining bitterly about the drink-free zone, I on the other - he gave me his theory about the Marseilles aggro. "You see, the French, they don't like the Marseillais - all North African, aren't they. They'd like to be shot of them. So they sent the English boys in and said, `Go on, you sort them out for us.' It was like the Normandy landings all over again."

And it is true that, when I was in Paris, Virginie grabbed my arm and said, "Don't go, c'est la guerre! You won't come back alive." But in Toulouse they don't seem to want liberating. Not by the British anyway. Giant screens have been dismantled (potential flash-point), bars ordered to close early (although 11 pm allows for a lot more drinking than on the train), and an entire music festival postponed until after the England game. I went to Toulouse, but it was closed.

The reputation of the Anglais is so fearsome that even I am worried and I am one of them. As the ticket inspector on the train said, `I just hope you don't lose. Look what happened when you won.'

Almost as soon as I got out of the station my worst fears were confirmed. There, lying in wait for me at the cafe across the street, was a whole gang of classic English hooligan-types. Skinheads, with the odd mohican, regulation tattoos, steel-toecaps, zipper jackets, the works. Oh-oh. This is the bit where I finally get my head kicked in. I should have listened to Virginie.

As I sauntered non-confrontationally by, deaf to requests for loose change, I realized: either these guys have the most impeccable French accents ever, or they actually are French. And, as I headed on down the street in my T-shirt, that was a shade too tight, and my Headworx surf shorts, and my DM sandals, and the well-toned muscles, I could almost hear them thinking, "Lui?Il est gay."