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   31 May, 2002 | 2240 IST



France get the blues

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When the French fizzled out

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Prem Panicker

At the end of it all, Fernando Gomez jumped up on the table and stuck a finger up, in a universal gesture that needed no explanatory footnotes.

Around him, close to 200 people -- packed into a bar that has a seating capacity of 60 tops -- applauded frantically.

Behind him, on the giant-sized television screen, the French team -- which had just one hour and 45 minutes ago walked onto the field as World Cup holders and defending champions -- were trooping out, their faces a mask of dejection. In a corner of the screen, the scorecard told the story: France 0, Senegal 1.

Fans at the bar "The f***ing French are no good without Zidane," says Julian, of New York by way of Amsterdam. "Look at that line-up -- they had all their stars, Vieira, Djorkaeff, Thuram, Desailly, Henry, the whole lot of them, and they played like amateurs. I bet India could have beaten them!"

He says that, and grins -- because from 7.30am, Julian and I have been indulging in a mild bout of sledging. His take is that India sucks at football -- which I was not about to dispute. Mine, though, was that Holland circa Johan Cruyff must go down in history as the best team to lose back-to-back World Cup finals, and they haven't done anything of note since.

At Felix, the French bar in the Village (340 West Broadway at Grand Street), that is pretty much the norm. People streamed in as strangers shortly after it opened its doors at 7am and by the time the game ended and everyone staggered out into the workaday world they were trading the kind of insults that go with years of knowing one another.

Or with having watched a football match together.

The bar is packed with as many Senegalese as French -- and everything both bands of supporters say is, to me, pure Latin. Make that French. Whatever. It's a foreign language anyway.

There is much ribbing, but it is good-natured -- France and Senegal are good friends, the kind that can trade insults with impunity. "We are being charitable, you know," says Alain, who describes himself as coming from "champagne country" outside Paris. "Senegal survives on our charity -- if we didn't send thousands of tourists there every year, that poor country wouldn't even have an economy."

Gomez -- a New Yorker born and bred, with roots in Lisbon, Portugal -- blows Alain a raspberry. "Ah, I am for anyone who is against France. That team is like my grandmother with a lemon -- sucks!" he says, when I wonder why a Portuguese is into sledging the French.

Watching the match "France doesn't even have a French team," he tells me a moment later, one eye on Alain and his group to see if anyone will rise to the bait. "Look at that lot -- they get their players from wherever they can, Patrick Vieira is from Senegal, for god's sake!"

"And Senegal has a French coach," retorts Alain. "If we hadn't taught them how to play, they wouldn't even be here."

Gomez may not like the French football team, but his antipathy does not extend to that country's women -- his girl friend is Theodosia. "It means god-given," she explains with a smile. "And it is not even a French name, my parents heard it somewhere and liked it, so they gave it to me."

Theodosia is there as football fan -- one among oh, I'd say about 30 women in the bar -- and peacekeeper, both. "Fernando tends to get a bit excited," she grins. "I try to keep him on a leash."

Around us, the excitement ebbs and flows with the game -- and given the quality of action in the World Cup curtain raiser, there are more ebbs than flows. In the initial moments, French moves upfield are greeted with an ululating war cry of 'aaa-ley!' -- or so 'alles' sounds. But as the Senegalese run away with the game, playing with maturity and unwonted discipline, the war cries die down, the focus shifts to food, and conversation.

I get my coffee and OJ fix -- Fernando and Theodosia, though, order an Omelette du Jour, and a Salade de Chevre Chaud Marine (which translates into warm goat cheese salad).

The bistro has a certain style, with wooden floors worn shiny with use, antique revolving fans, and huge posters on the walls. The bar, as you would expect, is stocked with a selection of fine French wines, and the food is midway between affordable and expensive -- the cuisine is pure French, and the prices range between $6 and $10 for appetizers and $13 and $17.50 for entrees.

This is the third World Cup Felix is 'hosting' -- it opened in 1994, and the World Cup proved a big draw, and ideal advertising medium, both. "1998 was our year, though," says Henri, the lad behind the bar. "France played beautiful soccer, this place was full all the time, and when we won the Cup, everyone spilled out into the streets and had a party right here!"

I find myself wondering what that must have been like. Earlier in the morning, shortly before the game could start, a white New Yorker, dressed in the French blue and sporting a blue scarf with the football motif, walks in, looks around doubtfully, then turns to his companion and goes "Mmmmm... this is not very... ahhh..."

Despair for the French fans "Well, this is a French place, what do you expect?" laughs the girl who is with him. "You should have gone to a Brazilian place if you wanted excitement."

"Yeah, this is all very, um, civilized..." he shrugs, looking around him. And the two of them walk out of there, presumably in search of a more boisterous venue.

At Felix, the crowd is hardcore football fans who turn up for every game, irrespective of the hour. "1998 was good, it was in the daytime for us, so we could skip work and come watch," says Alain. "This year, it's all in the middle of the night, going to be tough, but hey, is the World Cup!"

Henri, behind the bar, reckons 'tough' is a mild word to use. "We'll be showing all the games, and staying open throughout -- so no sleep," he says, lips curling downward in what I guess he would call a moue.

What makes it harder for the bistro employees is that the decision, irrespective of the hour, to have the entire menu on offer -- which means a football fan is quite apt, at 4am, to order a Faux Filet Sauce Bearnaise or an Aile de Raie aux Capres, Gratin Provencale (which, to the uninitiated, translates as a New York Sirloin with Bearnaise Sauce and a Sauteed Skate Fish with Capers, in that order).

It wouldn't be too tough, says Henri, if France were playing well.

"This is what comes of being the defending champions," explains Theodosia who, unlike her boyfriend, is less volatile and more inclined to discuss nuances as the game goes on. "These guys all play for different teams throughout the year, never play as a team. If France had to qualify, then they could have used that period to knit themselves together. Because they got an automatic entry, see, they don't even have a team out there, just 11 guys wearing the same jersey."

As if to underline her words, Djorkaeff makes a very nifty pass into space in front of the Senegal box, and Trezeguet muffs it, letting a defender win the ball from him.

Fernando is having none of these explanations though. "You know what the trouble with France is? It just plain sucks!"

Theodosia laughs and shakes her head. "Just like a man," she grins at me. "No finesse, no thought. Just all beer and action."

The dying minutes of the game see a French resurgence, and several raids on the opposing goal. And the crowd in the bar is suddenly on its feet, anticipating a cliffhanging climax. "Aaaaaaaaaalezzzzzzzzzzzz" they go as the men in blue surge once more into the Senegal goalmouth.


The war cry turns into a collective sigh, as yet another French try fizzles out. Seconds later, the final whistle goes, and almost on cue, the patrons are on their feet, pushing tables and chairs aside, in a rush to get to work.

"Won't be doing much work this month though," grins Alain, in passing. "The fun is just beginning...."

Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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