Monday, June 27, 2016

The Archduke Ferdinand Bowl

Preparations for the pep rally were well underway at noon on June 14 along the Quai de Chartrons in Bordeaux, France. That is to say, dozens of young men dressed in either in Hungary's national colors of red, green and white or in black T-shirts bearing what I assumed to be the Hungarian language's equivalent of "Roll Tide" were either drinking beer in sidewalk cafes or lined up to buy beer in adjoining markets.

About an hour later, the singing and drumming began. Loud singing, louder than the drums. And just as residents (including this temporary) one of the nearby street Cours du Medoc became accustomed to the din, the march started, straight underneath our windows.

First came the cops, about a dozen French police. Then came about two dozen press photographers and TV video crews, walking backwards. Then came the rolling rally, roughly 300 Hungarian men, maybe 30 Hungarian women and a few children, singing even more loudly, chanting louder than that, and setting off the occasional highway flare. I am impressed by anyone who can chant and drink beer at the same time, and they all could.

The march disappeared from view and then from sight, headed for the ritzy stretch of Cours de Medoc that holds the city offices of some of the world's most famous wine chateaux and the denizens of those offices who give themselves airs and graces you wouldn't believe. My temporary neighbors went back to their lives with a sigh of relief. I sighed as well, but not exactly with relief. I knew I'd meet the marchers again quite soon.

Two tickets in Section 20, row 27, Stade Atlantique for Austria vs. Hungary, an opening round match of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. It was my Christmas present for my daughter Hope, and through changing circumstances, six months later I'd be sharing it with her. I knew they were upper deck seats in the end zone. I was now hoping they were in the neutral fans section.

Euro 2016. The second-biggest soccer tournament in the world. The allegedly biggest terrorist target in the world and the reason Bordeaux contained so many local and national police, special riot police, and soldiers, all armed to the teeth and all (my guess because the French are such avid movie fans) excellent at looking tough, as if they knew six ways to kill a man with their crew cuts. Euro 2016, which had already seen running street violence between English drunks, Russian hooligans and those riot police in Marseille.

Oh, yeah, Euro 2016 was also the reason local public transit workers had called a strike for June 14, as part of ongoing protests of French labor law changes. Since security already prevented anyone from driving within a mile of the stadium, maybe those Hungarians were on the right track as to how to make the six p.m. kickoff.

It was supposed to be the all-time worst day in Bordeaux commuting history. It wasn't. My daughter met me at the light rail station in her neighborhood at 5:40 p.m. Three minutes later, we boarded a tram for the stadium. Ten minutes after that, we were there. Security was as quick, and let it be said, no more intrusive, than at Fenway Park, let alone Gillette Stadium. Had we not stopped to buy souvenirs, we would have made the national anthems, not that I could've told them apart.

As you may have guessed, our seats were right next to the section containing the marchers. Given the chance to sit down, which they did not take, the Hungarians were louder than ever. But that's all they were, loud. Nearby Austrian fans were not harassed verbally or otherwise. There were no fights among a group of people who'd been drinking for hours. The entire sellout crowd of 44,000 posed fewer problems for security personnel than one would find at an Eagles exhibition game at Lincoln Financial Field.

This was the 131st meeting of Austria and Hungary in tournament play, way more than Alabama has ever played Auburn. For a neutral, one who hadn't thought of either country in terms of sports or any other reason for decades, there was little to choose between them. Austria were better passers, the Hungarians had more individual ball skills. Hungary's goalie wore sweat pants. As soccer first halves are wont to do, it ended nil-nil.

In the second half, Austria scored what appeared to be the first goal at the end of the stadium away from me. But no. It was negated by a penalty that earned an Austrian a red card. A few minutes later, Hungary scored. My pals in the T-shirts surpassed themselves in joyous frenzy. By the time Hungary scored a late-game clincher, they were kind of frenzied out. Unable to be any louder, the Hungarians settled for a sort of delighted buzzing murmur after their initial roar.

The game ended, and the Hungarians stuck around to cheer their heroes some more. This was the nation's biggest soccer win since early in the Cold War, I later learned. Hope and I headed for the tram station. I didn't know, but now do, that French soccer stadiums will sell you a beer on the way out. They DO have a more civilized way of life, damn it.

Ten minutes later, we were on a tram headed home. It was packed full of Austrian fans. For the first time, my international soccer experience was quiet. Quiet as could be.

Before 8:45, Hope and I were sitting at a bistro table, studying the menu and wine list. In 40 years of attending garden variety Boston sports events, from Red Sox games to BC basketball, I have never, ever had a quicker, more painless travel experience. There's also much to be said for two-hour long games and six o'clock starts. It was hard not to compare Austria-Hungary to the day-and-night long experience, parts of which are real ordeals, of a Patriots Monday night game and ask, why do US fans put up with that?

The tournament rolls on. Austria never made it out of the group stage. Hungary was eliminated by Belgium yesterday. Nobody's that sad in Budapest. Just making it out of their group was the country's biggest win since the 1950s. For them, it's on to World Cup 2018.

If they get their, one American will at least know all their chants. Two hours of repetition and I've pretty well memorized them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Spanning the Globe to Bring You the Constant Variety of Perfect Hindsight and Second Guessing

So I'm back. My undisclosed pleasure trip was a three week sojourn to France with a quick side trip to San Sebastian, Spain in the Basque country. I missed a lot of big time sports event while I was away, and then again, I didn't miss a thing.

The sad death of Muhammad Ali got just as much attention in France as it did here. I didn't watch either the Stanley Cup, NBA Finals or US Open live, although the latter two were on French TV, which has as many cable sports channels as we do, because the six hour time difference meant 3 a.m. starting times. But I could see highlights in the morning, and follow basketball and golf through the pages of L'Equipe, the French national sports daily that had two reporters at the NBA Finals and one at the Open. Therefore, I did not miss the breaking news that LeBron James remains a pretty fair basketball player and that the United States Golf Association remains as pompously dysfunctional as ever.

But I didn't lack for sports, neither on TV nor live. I couldn't get away from them. At least, it was impossible to escape Euro 2016, the soccer tournament for the national teams of that continent this year being held in France, including games played where I was, the city of Bordeaux.

For Euro 2016, soccer overtook wine as Topic A in Bordeaux. Topic A1 was fevered. neurotic assessment of Les Bleus, France's team. France is a nation that loves drama, seeing life as a series of crises interrupted only by long meal breaks and August vacation. The French as rooters accordingly bear a striking resemblance to Red Sox fans circa 2003 or so. They know their team has talent, but it's a source of as much or more anxiety as joy. And like the Red Sox of those years, Les Bleus themselves are very good at generating internal drama.

The week before the tourney began, Karim Benzema, a star for European club champion Real Madrid, said he had not been picked for the French team because coach Didier Deschamps had succumbed to pressure from right wingers who objected to Benzema's Arab ethnicity (he was born in Lyon).

There IS a lot of racism in France, as much as here. On the other hand, over the winter Benzema became the subject of a criminal investigation for making a sex tape of a fellow member of the French team and maybe blackmailing him with it. One could see that Deschamps might've found that harmful to dressing room harmony.  As noted,  France loves drama, so the whole matter gave the country a good wallow in its neuroses. And let's face it, the Benzema affair was a billion times more fun to wallow in than Deflategate. Our US sports scandals just aren't world class. We must do better.

One would have thought that Topic 1A would be will Euro 2016 get me blown up or shot, but it wasn't. Oh, there were plenty of police and soldiers, some carrying machine guns, on site at both Bordeaux's stadium and in the city center where the Fanzone, a several square block soccer theme park and beer garden where games where broadcast on Jumbotron-sized screens. Their presence increased in both numbers and intensity when France was playing, too. But then, there were also a lot of soldiers and cops in public spaces the week before the tournament started. That's just how life in French cities goes since last November's atrocities in Paris. People have adjusted. Outside tables at cafes, bars and restaurants were as hard to come by at lunch as ever.

No, the non-soccer concerns of the Bordelais about Euro 2016 were the same as they'd have been in Boston. How will these games affect my parking and commuting? What kind of a hassle are the fans of other countries going to be in my neighborhood?

There are no unoccupied street parking spaces in Bordeaux and as far as I could tell there never have been, so I don't know why that was a worry. Traffic sucks and always has, as in any 21st century city. Public transit soaked up the visiting fans without a hitch -- despite theoretically being on strike on game days.

French workers are staging strikes in various industries to protest labor law changes. Let's not get into it. Bordeaux's bus and streetcar workers were supposed to be on strike the day of the game I attended. Service was disrupted to the extent that streetcars going to and from the stadium ran only every seven minutes instead of five.

As for visiting fans, there were many. Even tiny Iceland had 30.000 of them roaming from city to city. And there were serious disturbances in some places, notably Marseille. But Bordeaux lucked out. It had no games with England nor with Russia. Instead, it got the Irish, a horde of jolly inebriates wearing lethal looking sunburns. The Hungarians were loud, drank as much or more beer than the Irish fans, but alongside the usual bros and dudes were women and the occasional child. Men ready for serious aggression seldom travel in mixed company.

The overall experience for this Yank surrounded by Euro 2016 was the same sense I had from Super Bowls and Olympics I attended, just less intense because I wasn't working. The event seems to define all reality. The world outside it becomes indistinct and unimportant -- except for those long meal breaks, of course. And along with the immersion, I felt a twinge of regret. Our country as a whole can never experience such a sports-only daydream. We're too big. The Copa America tournament is still going on here in the US, but as with the 1994 World Cup, when the show moves from, say Chicago to Houston, Chicago goes back to its old reality. No country, not even ours, is rich enough to have tens of thousands of people traipse around on airplanes for three weeks to follow the home team or occupy a city center for a week between games. Only medium-sized countries like France can create the proper Soccer Theme Park atmosphere.

The game I attended deserves a post of its own and will get one. This essay has been somewhat disjointed, but my theme can best be summarized by glimpses of two pure tourism side trips my family made from our Bordeaux base.

Getaria is a fishing village in the Basque region of Spain, where we went to eat turbot grilled over wood fires. Sarlat is a small town in the Perigord region of France, where there are many enormous castles and roadside stands sell foie gras. Each town's tourism depends on making it seem as if life hasn't changed much there since about 1500.

In each place, every TV in town was on, and they all had the game on, whichever game it was. In Sarlat, it was Northern Ireland-Ukraine.

Spanning the globe to find the constant variety of sport is easy. The trick is finding a place on the globe you can avoid it.