In Menton, a seaside town 1,000 meters from the Italian border, this afternoon's match is a civic obsession. On the beach, cones are set up, a ball is rolled out and children gather to play ... baseball. To be fair, one old guy at a produce stand has painted his handlebar mustache in the tricolors of France, and his buddy is reading the Nice Matin newspaper, whose front-page headline states bluntly, FRANCE-ITALIE—LE DERBY DES FAUX AMIS ("the match between phony friends"). So perhaps things will pick up.
We will watch the first half of Le Derby Des Faux Amis in the Italian town of Ventimiglia, 20 minutes to the east of Menton. "My name is Tony" says a man who approaches in the Ventimiglia vegetable market, where flags reading FORZA ITALIA! are planted in piles of garlic. "You speak French? My English is not so good. I work on a cruise ship. We get watches in Switzerland, you understand? Breitling, Rolex, Tag Heuer...."
We don't want to buy a watch, we tell Tony. We want to watch the football match.
"Go into any bar," he says. "No, go to the Festival Cafe. On the beach. A grand panorama. Talk to Rudy. He's a friend of mine. You drink a cafe, drink a beer, drink a cafe, drink a beer—like that. Pretty soon, people go crazy."
"Grazie, Tony," I tell him.
Tony looks crestfallen: "You mean you no want to buy a watch?"
A TV has been set up outside the Festival, with its grand panorama of sea, and at the 4:30 p.m. kickoff, a very serious Italian kid of 16 yells, "Silenzio!" This omerta is honored for most of the desultory, scoreless first half, in which Italy adopts a dreary defensive posture. But so what: Italian sports television is a revelation, with its gratuitous supermodel studio hostesses and split-second commercials wedged into dead-ball sequences, so that a shot of a toothpaste tube will suddenly flash onto the screen in mid-match. And the match itself has its moments. When French midfielder Zinedine Zidane falls to the pitch clutching his crotch, the café crowd erupts into song, joyously hand-gesturing various suggestions at the screen.
At the halftime intermission, we hightail it back to Menton, whose streets are eerily silent. In an outdoor café at the Hotel les Arcades, 40 people variously sit and stand around a television, smoking and sipping and shrugging through a scoreless second half and extra time.
Then the funniest thing happens. The match goes to penalty kicks. France wins 4-3. And suddenly, instantly, a thousand tiny Renaults are racing around the town square, their little horns parping. Menton sounds like a thousand Felix Ungers clearing their sinuses.
Flags flutter from the French doors of apartments. Firecrackers begin to pop. On the beachfront avenue, the Promenade du Soleil, cars race up and down all night, flying blue-white-and-red scarves and parping endlessly. Strangers embrace, old men beam, waiters are fractionally less rude. France is a nation transformed.