Not really a break for Pete Sixsmith, whose series of World Cup reminiscences resumes tomorrow. But I also have reason to remember France 98. It was the year I feared I’d be keeping my head down in street battles, but ended up travelling the world …
Imagine you’ve been told at work that you’re going on a month of night shifts, and suddenly you’re given a paid holiday instead. Or that instead of representing your company at a winter conference in Skegness, the location has been switched to the Seychelles.
That was a bit like my France 98. I spent the first four months of the year or more expecting The Daily Telegraph to send me to report on hooliganism, especially any outbreaks involving England fans, or more accurately violent English criminals drawn to the location of football games. It would be an understatement to say I was not looking forward to it.
Just before it was too late for the paper to change its plans, Burton Menswear decided to pay for a slice of the corporate World Cup action by supporting a novel idea of a freelance sportswriter to divide the 32 countries between two journalists and publish reports about how people were following events in France from each of them.
One well-known writer was meant to be one of the pair, but pulled out when he saw words like “economy” and “Ibis” leaping out at him from the proposed itinerary. On top of which the stay in each country was measured in hours, not days.
Then it became clear that if we really wanted to cover every country taking part, from South America to South East Asia, we needed to carve them up between three, not two journalists. So a couple of us from lower down the food chain found ourselves roped in.
And instead of dodging riot batons and bovver boots in Marseille, I joined Norwegians, South Africans, Jamaicans, Americans, Danes, Dutch, Germans, Belgians, Italians, Austrians and Iranians as they watched live coverage of their countries’ games in Oslo, Soweto, Kingston, Miami, Copenhagen, Maastricht, Aachen, Liege, Milan, Vienna and Tehran.
Two deliberate mistakes in that list: Austria were already out by the time I reached Vienna and I went only because I thought my chances of getting into Iran were better from there. In the event, Tehran refused me entry and the Iranians with whom I watched Germany v Iran were worshippers at a mosque in Hamburg.
The series of reports the three of us sent back to London was called Around the World in 18 Days, and “produced in association” acknowledgements of Burton’s role appeared, a little embarrassingly, in the footnote to each. We didn’t get free suits.
The reluctant star writer had been right to suspect the accommodation would be unluxurious, the travel stop-start and the trip tiring. But he missed the point: adrenalin kept us going and even the paper’s mean approach to creature comforts failed to spoil easily the best, most satisfying two-and-a-half weeks of my career. I was in France in time to enjoy the 3-0 win in the final with Brazil, watching live on a screen in a seafront bar on the Med.
It had been a terrific 18 days, I’d met great people and work – of a fashion – had taken me to interesting places. There had been time for a quick cruise around fjords in Norway, after watching Norway 2 Morocco 2, before flying to South Africa, where Bafana Bafana marked their historic entry into the World Cup with a 3-0 defeat against France that no one really minded. During the match, I sipped cans of beer in the Soweto shebeen to which a burly black Johannesburg-based colleague had escorted me. I think Jo’burg was the longest stay of my odyssey, maybe 40 hours from touchdown to takeoff. And Jamaica, at 19 hours, was one of the shortest. Again my host team were making their World Cup debut, and again they were soundly beaten – 3-1 by Croatia. But the street party afterwards could hardly have been more noisy, happy and fun if they had sneaked the unlikely win one of two or my new friends had optimistically predicted.
I wrote this at the time:
The harsh lesson from Cratia’s cruise to victory is that the thrill of reaching France had induced too many Jamaicans to aim their sights implausibly higher that the most likely outcome, an honourable but early exit. Realistically, there was little hope for a team whose players pursue club football in local sides or, Frank Sinclair excepted, unfashionable corners of the English game. On paper, as it was to be on grass, Croatia are a class apart. But if Jamaicans cannot yet teach the world how to play, no one can be better at losing.
From joy in Jamaica, chuffed just to be taking part, to what seemed like total unconcern in the United States. In the Miami Beach bar where I saw Germany’s comfortable 2-0 win against the USA, I remember one apologetic family of Americans, a couple of Germans and two or three neutrals. The place had been heaving the night before, for a televised baseball game.
Before flying back to Europe, I mused over a beer at Miami airport and decided America simply couldn’t muster any interest in a sporting competition it couldn’t win (I hope the 2010 tournament will show that has changed). I stopped musing about anything at all when the waitress summarily rejected my 10 per cent tip, declaring: “My rate’s 15, sir.”
There was still plenty to see in Europe: a giant open-air screen in Copenhagen, a beery interlude in Germany ( (and even a spot of bother, between Germans), the elegance of Milan, intermittent telephone squabbles with the Iranian authorities and, finally, my only alcohol-free game of the tournament: tea being the only beverage served in the Hamburg mosque.
Whenever I want to blame others for my own declining interest in international football during the 1980s and 1990s, I point my finger at the yobs. Virtually every one of the hoolies that follows a club is also an England supporter, and many of them will happily travel to games with or without tickets. The result is that the percentage of troublemakers rises significantly at England internationals by comparison with league matches.
But whenever I try to be more reasoned, and accept that it’s still only a minority. I also remember how much I enjoyed France 98, and whisper thanks to some greater force for keeping me away from that minority.
Next: Pete Sixsmith on 2002 in places we cannot spell or pronounce.