Thus, when this French foreign legion returned to Marseilles to whip a weak South African team 3-0, it heard the pent-up cheers of a dozen years. Zinedine Zidane, the world's finest midfielder, was raised in a high-rise housing project near the Marseilles airport and is as much a mascot of this World Cup as the stuffed chicken named Footix. Last week Zidane seemed to brood from the cover of every magazine in France, with the exception of Paris Match, which went with Ronaldo. So when this son of Algerian immigrants set up France's first goal, a corner kick headed home by Christophe Dugarry, the stadium seemed to levitate—perhaps it was only the mistral—and Dugarry reeled around the pitch with his tongue lolling out, in apparent homage to Jerry Lewis.
In other words, don't discard all your preconceived ideas, for some of them turn out to be true. The French really do like Jerry Lewis. They really were fond, for that matter, of detonating nuclear devices in the South Pacific. A few years ago, when France was conducting atomic tests in his native New Caledonia, which is a French overseas territory, Real Madrid star Christian Karembeu called for a boycott of all things French. Karembeu, a midfielder, has presumably lifted that embargo now that he's playing for France. A squall of support for Les Bleus is now traveling slowly but steadily from south to north. Soon Paris will fall.
How can it resist? World Cup crowds (hooligans excepted) are carriers of joy. The one attending the 2-2 draw between Morocco and Norway in Montpellier featured all the fez-wearing of most Shriners' conventions, if none of the decorum. Members of Scotland's Tartan Army wore kilts—often nothing more—shotgunned McEwan's lager and sang sweetly on the Paris Metro after losing to Brazil: "We're coming home/To the good old summertime/Where the bagpipes are playing/Auld Lang Syne...." God bless 'em. As former Scotland manager Tommy Docherty has said of the squad and its supporters, "They'll be home before the postcards."
Or will they? The same, after all, was said of Nigeria. So what if the Super Eagles lost their last three pre-Cup tune-ups by a combined score of 12-1? Who cares if the players reportedly lobbied Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha to fire coach Bora Milutinovic as recently as last week? Never mind that they trailed Spain 2-1 after 72 minutes last Saturday in Nantes. Think Chilavert.
Abacha died of a heart attack on June 8 (kicking off just 48 hours before the World Cup did), Nigeria scored twice in the span of five minutes on Saturday to beat Spain 3-2, and Milutinovic arrived at the Nantes train station for the return trip to the Super Eagles' training base north of Paris in an agbada, a flowing white gown and matching papal cap reserved for the most special of occasions in Nigeria. "I tell you, people speak so much," said Milutinovic, a Serb who has also coached the national teams of Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S., referring to the speculation about his job security. "What is better to do?" He zipped his mouth shut theatrically and said, in Spanish, "Tranquilo." Keep calm.
French police tried to cut a path through the crowd of Nigerian fans, who were surprised to find the Super Eagles suddenly among them at the station, but the players ignored the cops' cordon and danced deliriously with the throng, keeping time to a Nigerian drum-and-rattle corps that seemed to appear spontaneously. Just before boarding the train, the Spanglish-speaking, e-pluribus-unum-embodying coach of the Super Eagles let slip a secret, one worth remembering throughout this World Cup. "The only true thing is that we win today," said Milutinovic. "What we did before? All that was strategy."
In other words, be wary of preconceived ideas. The team and the train pulled away from the platform, but the manager's smile hung in the air, lingering there like the Cheshire cat's grin.