Monday, July 05, 2004

The football is over but who was watching?

The football is over. Vietnam breathes. In England they’re flicking past the back page to the cricket. In Parisian cafes they are turning a blind eye to ‘sandwich au grec’ on the menu. Meanwhile in Athens they’re waking up to a strange feeling: victory. Worry beads have been placed in the jewellery box, for now, while in Lisbon they’re sweeping up, shaking their melancholic heads, wondering - what if…

But strangely enough, in Asia, before the game, as the locals shuffled on the streets waiting anxiously for kick off, the ex-pats seemed to be heading for hills. Why? Too late, they say, too boring, they think. This wasn’t living up to the BBC’s billing: "The nation of explorers versus the founders of civilisation.” (This admittedly made it all sound like a game of Risk tm played by men in velvet pants and feather-peaked caps).

The sore-losing dearly departed, it seemed, had both eyes on a practical Monday morning. The French have already added Greece to their list of disasters along with Waterloo, Japan 2002 and the South Pacific. England can add Beckham and Vassell to the horrifically long list of penalty howlers that re-occur like every good curse should by nature. The Daily Mail blamed the referee and printed his email address for all to abuse. As for the Italians, they were on the bus for home seemingly weeks ago. Rasping their tongues out the window, crying “conspiraziano”. (Totti has laid his demons to rest in front of the Virgin Mary in Rome, pleading for Divine forgiveness for his spittle job on a sweaty Dane.)

So with the favourites out, and playing below expectations, and that’s an understatement, had ex-pat Europeans in Hanoi (except the Greeks I presume…) lost their taste for football?

“I wish England were playing,” said one English fellow, a minute before kick off as he headed for bed. “Football? C’est quoi?” said a French chap. “J’ai ne pas le foot…”

So as my footless-French friend and Englandless-English pal trudged off to their beds I quickly texted others but no reply. Maybe they were right. Too late. Too boring. Tomorrow was the start of another week. I decided to split.

But as I drove off, snaking through the inner-city streets, it struck me how the city around me was still buzzing: grinning teenage boys, let out late for the game, drove the other way, on pavements old grannies served up hot tea while men opened up a new pack of Vinataba, tobacco pipes whistled, TV’s were turned up, Nelly Furtado (half-Portuguese you know) was singing at the opening ceremony, kick off was beckoning but why was Asia waking up while all the Europeans (except the Greeks…) were going to bed?

The Vietnamese are the happiest of football purists, I surmise, as regards Euro 2004 they are basically neutral. Some may consider neutrality as hedging your bets, or sitting on the fence. But it has its bonuses. Switzerland, for example, sat pretty, while Europe butchered itself silly once upon a time. Though what invaders would want to march up a mountain anyway? So too Ireland, we drank the German spies under the table in Cork and told Winston Churchill to leave a message in Dublin, we’d get back to him in the morning.

To be neutral watching Euro 2004 is to enjoy it to the full, as the tournament unfolded and the top dogs went whimpering home, Vietnamese fans sat pretty enjoying the show, whether graced by the fleet-footed Zinedane Zorro Zidane or the pirates of Penzance, they will watch it regardless, let’s face it they even show the German league on VTV 4! Do they care about David Beckham’s absence and how he only scores during Castro oil advertisements? I doubt it.

For them, the Euro is a glitterati event, it’s mini-Monte Carlo, it’s the chance for a sporting flutter, a sneaky night out, girls dress up, couples meander across the Ho Tay causeway on the way to the game, men toast with a bia, the old ladies sell a pot and a half of tea, the late night noodle stalls rack up the sales, afterwards everyone sleeps in, perhaps a few are late for work, but no matter, the boss is too, and in short a Sunday night becomes a Saturday night.

But not for the Europeans. Those tired cynics, (the Greek Embassy excluded), they crawled off to bed. When France played Italy four years ago the bars were packed with ex-pats swilling beer, but not this time, they took the attitude if you’re not winning you’re sulking, while the Vietnamese got comfy in empty chairs across town.

But therein lay the great irony: the Asians would keep the Europeans awake through the night watching the end of a European competition.

I myself stretched out in my bed, deciding I would keep score by counting my neighbour’s cries of ‘vao’ (goal), recognisable by a sustained cheer afterwards, and not to be confused with a ‘wow’ or an ‘aow’, which are near or excruciating misses, I believe.

As I lay in my furnace of a room, itching with hot insomnia, I could feel the tension consume the air. There were whistles from my neighbour's TV. I guessed both teams were struggling to impose their strategy. But mid-way through the second half my neighbours erupted - ‘vao!’ That was it. One-nil. And judging by the subsequent low cheers from the TV it must have been the visiting Greeks who had gone one up. Game on.

I ran downstairs to watch as the Portuguese chased the game. The frustration built for the hosts. The pain etched on the fans faces. They had set out their sails too late. Outside the winds were blowing but in the stadium the air was dead. The Portuguese were left like fisherman running down the pier for fear of missing the tide. The whistles and cheers became a din. They rallied. Too little. Too late.

And that was that. It was all over. All across Hanoi City television sets were flicked off. In Lisbon the Portuguese were crying. The champagne was left in melting ice. Eusebio loosened his tie. In Athens they were on the streets, honking, cheering, kissing. And in Ha Noi, the Europeans were sleeping, the Vietnamese were driving home, getting into bed, Greece were the champions of Europe, but they didn’t really care, after all it’s just a game.

Then Monday arrives. Too soon for some. Some folk drive to work half-asleep. Europeans read about it on the internet. Journalists use pompous classical clichés to describe the Grecian triumph, which is ridiculous and unfair: it took Odysseus 20 years to take care of Troy and get back to his missus with the aid of several Gods; it only took the Greek Football team a German coach, man marking and three weeks to conquer Europe.

And did any foreigners watch it? Well, actually, yes. My antipodean pal for starters. “German efficiency,” said a Kiwi of the Greek demolition on the tournament. “Damn right,” said a Canadian, “Who was Jumping Jim?” (The clothed streaker who ran past Figo and out did the hosts by hitting the back of the Greek net).

And now Greece are on the map, their seven syllable names not quite on the lips of the locals, but who cares, smiling youngsters will ask their fathers if Greece will win the Olympics too, or will the Portuguese exact revenge in the shot putt?

May the Gods bless you Greece, and don’t forget to wave to Italy, France and the English tourists as you coast through the straits of Gibraltar, down the Mediterranean all the way home. You did it.

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