In the morning, over breakfast in a château in the vineyard village of Villié-Morgon, I meet a regal Argentine named Horacio Bernardo Scliar, who manages a factory in Buenos Aires. Attending the World Cup with his three adult sons, Fernando, Martín and Esteban, Horacio is happy, but he cannot mask his concern for the Argentines. "That was not a good match stylistically," he frets. "Argentina did not play with flair." Playing with flair is of paramount importance to South America's teams, a fact that will hit home this afternoon when Al and I drive four hours north to Ozoir-La-Ferrière, which has officially changed its name for the duration of the World Cup to Ozoir-Brazil.
Ozoir-Brazil, the training headquarters of the Brazilian national team, is only seven miles from Disneyland Paris, which is appropriate as the Brazilians have attracted a Goofy, Dopey, Happy horde of hangers-on and hangers-out. Practices are open to the public—free tickets are required—and the stadium's 4,000 capacity is filled every day. "You should come," the team's p.r. contact, a woman named Ana, had told me. "Everyone has fun. It is very relaxed."
So it is. From the stands the Brazil bus is cheered raucously as it rolls into the parking lot outside. Ten minutes later the players emerge from a tunnel to meet the Brazilian press corps, many of whose members extend balls and T-shirts to be autographed, hands to be clasped, cheeks to be kissed. Several carry disposable cameras and ask the players to pose. I am not making this up. The team's calisthenics get a standing ovation. I take a seat in the stands between a man wearing a hat decorated with the miniature heads of Brazilian national team members—they stick out from the crown of his cap like cherry tomatoes skewered on toothpicks—and a 400-pound Brazilian man in a platinum blond wig who keeps standing up to samba. Did I mention that a band is playing throughout the practice? Of course it is.
Now picture the Chicago Bulls allowing this—inviting this—as they prepare for the NBA Finals, or the Green Bay Packers practicing in such a way for the Super Bowl. You can't? Then you have just discovered, at 5:17 on a Wednesday afternoon, what makes the World Cup what it is—whatever it is.
As we bid adieu to Ozoir-Brazil, Ronaldo, the team's 21-year-old superstar, is blithely chipping a ball into the goal from mid-field and grinning that grin that looks like the grille of a badly used Mercedes.
THURSDAY, JULY 2: Lyons and Nice
Parked in downtown Lyons is a badly used Mercedes with German license plates. The owner has ripped off the hood ornament—which is the main reason most people buy a Benz in the first place—and replaced it with a miniature soccer ball. Having driven 1,000 miles in three days in pursuit of football, Al and I somehow understand.
No World Cup games are scheduled today, so we drive to Nice, the town so nice they named it...Nice. The German team trains here, and though we don't see any players, the trip is worth every four-dollar gallon of gas. For the sea is the color of antifreeze, and the sky is like stone-washed denim, and the only work people are doing is on their tans. Nobody cares about anything on the French Riviera. These people have more phrases for apathy than Eskimos have for snow. In addition to ennui and malaise and blasé, there are que sera sera and c'est la vie and—well, you get the picture. Nice is less than an hour's drive from the France-Italy border, and France plays Italy in a quarterfinal match tomorrow, but you would never know it to gaze at the thonged throngs on the beach.
Not that I do, mind you.
FRIDAY, JULY 3: Menton, France, and Ventimiglia, Italy