Thursday, July 08, 2010

The World Cup and Me: 1998

In the years immediately following World Cup 1994 it is no exaggeration to say that I was completely obsessed with the world of international soccer. A couple different things helped me considerably with my passion; first, a couple channels on our cable system started showing highlight programs of the English Premier League and Italy's Serie A. Cripes I was in heaven, I was finally getting to see the best players in the world on a regular basis. Second, somewhere around this time we got our first Barnes and Noble in Nashua and with it came a great selection of soccer books and magazines. "World Soccer", the fantastic magazine from England became a monthly buy and I tore it apart, devouring every article and every little tidbit from all the European leagues, the US, South America...hell, even some of the Asian leagues. I also bought a handful of books including one called the Soccer Encyclopedia which I spent hours reading, learning as much as I could about the history of the big leagues and players. I was particularly interested in the history of the World Cup itself and I read as much as I could about every tournament starting with 1930 and commited tons of stats to memory. The Slav and I also developed another hobby - collecting soccer jerseys. They weren't as easy to find back then as they are today but we bought em when we could. At one point I even remember calling all the way to a shop in England that advertised in the back of "World Soccer" to order a Newcastle United jersey. If you added up the cost of the call, the exchange rate and the shipping charges I probably paid 3 times the cost of the shirt but I didn't care.

In the spring of 1998 I enlisted in the US Army. For those new to this blog, I did this for two main reasons: to get money for my Masters Degree and to see Europe. I was guaranteed an assignment in Germany and the fact that the World Cup was being held that summer in neighboring France was certainly not lost on me. I arrived in Germany about a month before the tournament began and the first thing I did was go downtown to find a sports bar that would be showing the matches. I found one right away called, appropriately, "The Sports Bar" and it was on.

Now, at this time I didn't really have a particular country that I supported. I was more interested in watching all the teams and comparing the styles of play. I cheered mostly for certain players (my two favorite players back then were Roberto Baggio and Zinedane Zidane) and for teams that played well. I rooted for the US of course but they were still nowhere near the level of the big teams in terms of quality of play and they were usually painful to watch. I had a lot of friends back home who followed teams of their ancestry (Ireland, Italy, etc) and though this sounded like a good idea, my immediate ancestry was Canadian and they were even worse than the US at soccer. My brother had once sent me a copy of our family Coat of Arms going all the way back to France and I really liked the French team back then since Zinedane Zidane was at his peak so I adopted them as my team. I did actually speak a little French back then so it seemed a natural fit.

Every day, as soon as final formation was over, I would rush back to the barracks, change clothes, and get down to the Sports Bar as fast as I could to catch the first match of the day. Those were some very special times for me sitting in the Sports Bar watching all the matches with the locals, drinking German beer and going out between matches to grab a doner kebab. The owner was a young German guy named Miguel and he used to do a "tip" before every match where you put in 2 Deutschmarks and predicted the score of each match and if you won, you won the pot. I'm proud to say that I won my share of tips which gave me instant credibility with the Germans. They all spoke English and we would sit there talking "Football" during the matches and they were quite surprised at how well I knew the teams and players, especially the smaller teams that they knew nothing about.

The US were drawn in Germany's group in WC 1998 so a friend and I went down to support the American team. The sports Bar was completely packed and there were only a few of us there to witness Germany just completely dismantle an overmatched US team who would go on to finish dead last in the entire tournament. The German fans were great though, they were almost apologetic that Germany had embarrassed the US so bad.

Somewhere after the first two rounds of matches we were scheduled to go out to the training area in Hohenfels for a week of field training. I was not happy about this as I would have to miss an entire week of matches - and the third round of matches at that, which usually decided who would be going on to the knockout stages. I was on a retrans team with two other guys and we spent most of the week camped out at the edge of a field in the middle of nowhere. After a couple days of reading the World Cup magazine I'd brought with me I could not take it anymore and begged my boss to let me try and find a town to watch the Brazil-Norway match that night. He reluctantly agreed and I put on my PT clothes and started walking in the direction of the nearest town, called Velburg, which the sign said was 3 kilometers away. I arrived in Velburg and walked around until I found a gastehaus and went in to ask if they would be showing the match that night and they said no, they were simply a restaurant. I asked if there was a place in town that would have it and they said no, the nearest place that would probably have it would be the next town which was 5 kilometers away, back in the direction that I'd just come from. Two directions I could have gone and I chose the wrong one! But Brazil-Norway was a big match so I had no choice...I had to make the trek. I walked and walked and walked and eventually got to the town, checked into 2 or 3 gastehauses and eventually found one that had a little TV and would show the match. In the dining room area where I watched I noticed a plaque on the wall, went over to see what it was and to my amazement it was plaque commemorating West Germany's 1990 World Cup victory and was signed by every member of the 1990 team! I was definitely in the right place. I drank a hefeweizen, ate a schnitzel and watched Norway upset heavily favored Brazil, thinking that all the walking I did to get there that night was well worth it.

We got back to Kitzingen by the time the knockout stages began and my nightly routine got back underway for about a week but soon the 4th of July holiday was upon us and since the main reason I'd joined the Army was to travel and see Europe, there was no way I was staying around Kitzingen with 4 days off. France was in the Quarterfinals that weeekend so I jumped on a train and took my first ever trip to the motherland, to the city of Strasbourg. Walking around Strasbourg Saturday morning was just an unbelievable experience as the match was that afternoon and the city was abuzz with excitement. I went into the news shops to get a paper or bottle of water and every newspaper in the place was screaming about the match. I did some sightseeing and then about an hour before the match, took a seat in a little bar right next to the huge cathedral. There were only a couple other people in there and I couldn't understand why it wasn't completely packed for such a big game. To my horror, France had drawn Italy in the Quarterfinals and I was not happy about having to root against Italy, but I loved this French team and I was all in. It turned out to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences too, one I will never forget. Looking back I think the bar was empty because most French people didn't think they had a chance. I say this because as the match went on more and more people started coming in. By the time it got to overtime the place was completely packed and when the match went into penalty kicks, not only was the place packed but there were people stacked up at the windows at least three deep trying to get a glimpse and yelling "ALLEZ FABIAN!" (The French keeper's name was Fabian Barthez). France ended up winning the match on penalty kicks and I spent the rest of the day walking around the city taking in all the celebrations before heading back to the hostel to watch Brazil squeak by Denmark. That day has always been one of my favorite World Cup moments ever. The next night I mistakenly incurred the wrath of a German high school group who were staying at the hostel. Germany took on Croatia and although I liked the German team, I was sure that Croatia would upset them that night. Croatia had a fantastic team in 1998 and I felt that Davor Suker was one of the most underrated strikers at the World Cup so I had told the German kids that I'm sorry but they were going to lose that night. They did not like my prediction and they liked the actual match even less as Croatia completely dominated them 3-0. The German kids spent the rest of the night telling me how terrible Americans are at football and how their national team is a joke. France drew Croatia in the semifinals and although France beat them (just barely), they ended up finishing 3rd in World Cup 1998.

Back in Kitzingen the following weekend we prepared for a France-Brazil final. Brazil were heavy, heavy favorites but once again, I had no doubt that France would win it all. I'd fallen in love with their team by that point, they played such a beautiful style and had Zinedane Zidane who I'd watched for years and was quickly becoming the best player of his generation. France hadn't won anything by that point (except for a European Championship in 1984) and were hungry. They had no egos or attitudes. They had players I admired such as Bixente Lizerazu and Emmanual Petit. Brazil were Brazil but anyone who watched France play in that tournament should have known that they would not be denied even though I seemed to be the only person who recognized it. I defiantly told everybody at the Sports Bar in Kitzingen that France would beat Brazil - I even GUARANTEED it - and everybody laughed at me. In fact, France were up 2-0 at halftime and one of the bartenders told me that Brazil would still win and even bet me a round of drinks that they would. When the final whistle sounded and France were World Champions for the first time ever, everyone at the bar congratulated me and joked that they would never doubt me again and we all drank long into the night celebrating the end of a fantastic World Cup tournament. World Cup 1998 remains to this day my favorite tournament ever.

Up Next: 2002

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