The War of the World’s Cup

An Irishman’s Diary about the sounds of football-mad Paris

“I pity anyone trying to ignore the World Cup in Paris. Even walking along the streets, attempting to mind your own business, you cannot but follow what’s happening just from the crowd noises in bars and cafes.”  Photograph:  Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

“I pity anyone trying to ignore the World Cup in Paris. Even walking along the streets, attempting to mind your own business, you cannot but follow what’s happening just from the crowd noises in bars and cafes.” Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Fri, Jul 4, 2014, 01:00

Visitors to Paris this week must have been alarmed to hear what sounded like air-raid sirens going off all across the city. In a place where war memorials are ubiquitous, all the more so now with the centenary of 1914 and the 70th anniversary of Liberation, the sound must have caused tourists of nervous disposition to choke on their cappuccinos while peering at the sky.

Perhaps some Americans, especially those who remain sceptical about soccer as a benign force, added two and two together and assumed that Franco-German tensions in advance of this evening’s World Cup quarter-final had spilled over into something more serious.

In fact, as the unconcerned faces of local people testified, the sirens were routine. The French emergency warning system is tested on the first Wednesday of every month. Like the Angelus bell, it rings at noon. Then, unlike the Angelus, it repeats 10 minutes later.

Tonight’s France-Germany game is unlikely to cause any emergencies. Despite this year also being the 32nd anniversary of the liberation of several of Patrick Battiston’s teeth by the German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, during a previous encounter between the teams, there seems to be general agreement that the World Cup quarter-final is only a football match.

Whereas, if Algeria had beaten Germany on Monday night, that might have been different. An Algeria-France quarter final threatened to be about more than mere football. And it was an avidly desired prospect in the Arab suburbs of Paris. Apart from anything else, it would mean Algeria had first avenged another German World Cup atrocity of 32 years ago – the non-aggression pact with Austria that saw both those countries progress at Algeria’s expense.

Alas for the north Africans, such closure was not to be. I watched their very tense game against Germany among the cafes of Belville, where the smoke – from both cigarettes and chicha pipes – grew ever thicker as the game wore on, and so did the voices shouting at the televisions.

In fairness, they reacted admirably to defeat. When the Germans scored a late second goal to seal victory, there was first a profound silence. Then, moments later, a burst of sad applause at their team’s efforts, which rippled out into neighbouring cafes along the Boulevard de Belville.

Albert Camus would have been proud, I thought, as I headed for the rental bike stand. But even as I mounted a Velib for the cycle back into town, the philosophical resignation behind me gave way to renewed cheering. The boys in green had made it 2-1. Unfortunately it was 12.20am Paris time, and even later for Algeria’s hopes, so I kept peddling.

I pity anyone trying to ignore the World Cup in Paris. Even walking along the streets, attempting to mind your own business, you cannot but follow what’s happening just from the crowd noises in bars and cafes.

On Tuesday night, for example, I watched most of the US-Belgium match in an English pub called the Bombardier (not a place you want to hear air-raid sirens, I imagine), where the game’s drama was heightened by the noisy, if confused, nationalism of supporters. As plucky little America struggled not to be overrun by the mighty Belgians, there were periodic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”. This in turn provoked chants of “Bel-jum! Bel-jum!”, a pronunciation suggesting the chanters were not from either Flanders or Wallonia but were rather the same people who, at one point, launched an unprovoked chorus of God Save the Queen.

The game was eventful too. But when the Belgians scored twice in the first period of extra time, I decided it was safe to leave. In fact I felt sorry for the naive Americans still watching, because it was obvious their heroes wouldn’t score if they played all night.

Of course I had barely crossed the street when the Bombardier erupted, with celebratory roars and a renewed “USA! USA!”. So it was 2-1, I knew. Then, slightly farther on, there was a mass “Ooh!” and more applause, which was either an American near-miss or yet another Tim Howard save.

So it continued all the way home, with the cheers and groans of other bars fading in and out like radio signals. By the time I got back to my room, I didn’t need to be told that the Belgians had held on by the skin of their frites. But just in case, my Twitter Feed was going off like an air raid siren, announcing that I’d just missed one of the best second periods of extra time in the history of football.

@frankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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