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.


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