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Hey, Let’s Go See the USA Play France!

June 10th, 2018 · 1 Comment · Football, France, soccer

Usually, the hare-brained schemes are mine. Or were.

A night college football game followed by a 1 p.m. NFL kickoff the next day — in some other state — followed by a flight back to SoCal after filing. … The plan to drive from SoCal over the Rockies and to Denver in about 22 hours, in the midst of winter. … The numerous 450-mile, same-day round trips to Las Vegas for boxing — which invariably ended with me slapping myself to keep awake while driving at 3 a.m.

This hare-brained scheme, however, was Leah’s.

It went like this:

–Friday. Leah figures out that the U.S. soccer team’s friendly match with France, starts at 3 p.m. … EDT. Which means 9 p.m. in France. Destination TV, then, here in the south of France.

–Saturday. Leah tumbles to the fact the match would be played in Lyon. Which is not in the south of the country but neither is it in the north. Lyon is 230 miles from Beziers, a sizable town near where we live. And on a fast-train track not far from us. The wheels begin to turn.

–Meanwhile, I am at the dining table, compiling fantasy baseball stats, murmuring, “Hmm, that’s interesting … Oh, really, tickets available? … We can leave at 3:40 out of Agde and be in Lyon at 6:30? Well then.”

The hare-brained scheme was being formulated as I sat, not quite paying attention, and before I knew it … it was all laid out and the only question was … would I like to join someone else’s hare-brained scheme?

Uh, I guess.

And off we went!

–An hour later, we are standing on the rail platform at Agde, waiting for the regional train that will get us moving north. We have one backpack with not quite a change of clothes for either of us, a half-empty water bottle, a laptop computer — and not one morsel of food. The train is late.

–That means that when we are deposited in Montpellier we barely have time to make the fast train headed for Lyon. Nothing else matters; if we miss this train, two $100 train tickets go void.

No soup for you! Maybe later?

–We reach Lyon on time, at 6:30, which gives us 2.5 hours to reach the stadium. Not a problem, right? No! Hare-brained schemes inevitably are incomplete. Like, oh, where is the rando hotel located? How do we intend to get to the stadium from Lyon’s main train station? What and when and how are we going to eat … anything? We walk right past a Paul bakery/sandwich shop in the Lyon train station because we are pushing on to the hotel — and also are being made nervous by the droves of soccer fans we see streaming through the station. Maybe a sandwich after the hotel.

–Our lodging advertises itself as being “five minutes” from the train station. It probably is. It takes us closer to 30 minutes to find it because we are misled/confused by our iPhone app and walk in circles. Finally, there it is, a sort of apart-hotel overlooking an elementary school, and the innkeepers have posted notes about not taking photos of the children during recess. (Creepiest moment of the trip.) But the place is OK and dirt cheap — $50 for one night. The night receptionist has no idea who might be selling food at this hour, after 7 p.m. We see no bakeries on the street, nor any groceries. We will get food at the stadium. Yes.

–Can you tell that we are getting a bit wrapped up in all this? We need to move, move, move! Even though we know soccer crowds always arrive early. We need to push on! Even though we are faint from hunger. How hard would it have been to grab a Snickers on the way out the door back home? Easy, but this is a hare-brained scheme!

–Tickets? The author of this trip bought, via her iPhone, while sitting on the fast train, two tickets in the upper deck, same section but 14 rows apart. The other of us is nervous that those tickets actually exist, not having corporeal form. A cop at the train station tells us the stadium is sold out. Leah begs to differ; she has two QR codes in her phone showing our purchase of tickets in the second deck. What could go wrong?

–We notice the gathering of fans at a tram, just outside the railroad station. Lots of French flags. Hey! Those people are going to the game! On the tram! (We thought maybe a subway, maybe a taxi would get us to the stadium. But this tram is sitting right in front of us.) Leah uses her French to figure this bit out: We get a nonstop roundtrip ticket (ah, on paper!) for 5 euros (about $6) each, to the stadium and back to the train station. We go through light security before getting into the SRO tram car.

–Some little kid bangs into my tush while he was trying to spin around a pole in the tram. Says Leah: “Gotta be rough, being crotch-high to everyone else on the tram. Can’t see a thing.”

–Did I mention it was nearly 90, with lots of humidity? We place ourselves where the cool air in the tram seems to be coming from, but the heat of all those bodies overpowers it. Faint from hunger, overheating, sun blazing. The tram trip is maybe 20 minutes. It seems like 40. Somehow, it is still an hour before kickoff.

–We walk towards the new-ish (2016) Groupama Stadium, capacity nearly 60,000, home to the French Olympique Lyonnaise club, which was very successful in the previous decade. The stadium is good, fine, but the U.S. has 30, 40, 100 stadiums like this one. We have got to eat, but all the lines we see are daunting. Let’s get into the stadium, make sure we have seats.

–Last layer of security is at the stadium’s periphery. A cursory pat-down and I am sent ahead, even with various bulges in my cargo pants containing another pair of glasses, a pen, a pad, a metal asthma inhalator, a package of facial tissues, a wallet … Maybe I don’t fit a terror profile? Well, of course not. Also, from hunger and stress, I am weak as a kitten.

–We are on the south side of the stadium. The side partly still in the sun. The cheap(ish) tickets are in the sun, like they are at bullfights. Thankfully, the sun is finally dropping behind the grandstand. We get to our seats by trudging up eight flights of stairs, about 20 at a pop. Have the French not heard of escalators? Do they know we have not eaten since breakfast?

–We are assured they sell food and drink inside the stadium, and there it is, the long lines where we can get burgers, dogs, fries, beer, soda, water, M&Ms. The basics of a good diet. We stay on our feet long enough to get a beer to share and two burgers, and eat the burgers while admiring the view from the upper reaches of the stadium. (Is that the foothills of the Alps over there?)

–One of us is flagging, and I get to sit in Row 2; Leah has to go a lot more stairs to get to Row 16. (Think of the LA Coliseum; about that steep.)

–We are in our seats. No longer ravenous. Safe in the knowledge “ticket” takers have verified the electronic existence of two purchased tickets, 50 yards apart, inside the stadium.

–The lineup for the U.S. national team, as currently constituted, is flashed on a message board, and I recognize exactly two guys — Julian Green, the little German-American winger who scored a goal against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, and Bobby Wood, probably the best U.S. striker under age 30. The others? Carter-Brown, Palmer-Vickers, Weston McKinnie. A lot of surnames on this team.

Must have to be USA soccer savants to know who they are, but it doesn’t matter because the U.S. is not going to play a World Cup match until Qatar 2022, if then, and maybe none of these guys will be there. A lot can happen in four years. Ask Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard and Michael Bradley and all the other Last Generation guys whose national team careers ended sooner than they expected.

–This is where rewards of the hare-brained scheme come to the fore. We are seated, though far apart, in the big stadium, with approximately 58,000 French fans, most of them waving French flags, and about 100 Americans, and we are about to see at least one 2018 Russia World Cup team in action! A team that includes global stars such as Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Kilian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Blaise Matuidi …

(But, really, when is my next chance to see the U.S. team live? The last for me was covering a 2009 “Hex” match in El Salvador for the New York Times. Frankie Hejduk scored the tying goal late in a 2-2 draw. Leah has not seen the lads play, in person, in this century. And here we are, six hours after the HB scheme went into effect.)

–Here come the players. The fans boo the Yanks. The pre-game announcer pleads for the fans to be kind. Some agree. The anthems are sung by a nearly inaudible children’s choir. The two French guys to my right obstinately sit during the U.S. anthem. (So that’s their thanks for our saving them from the Germans in WW1 and WW2! Yeah, I’m that old guy who says that sort of thing.) The two kids on my left stand. I sing; I can hear a few Yanks, in the highest corner of the stadium, also singing. The French fans are full-throated in their singing of La Marseillaise, completely fired up for their team; I covered the 1998 France World Cup, and French fans have never been this enthusiastic ahead of a tournament. Or maybe it is about Lyon (and environs) happy to have Les Bleus playing in their local stadium.

–We could ask whether it was further proof of a hare-brained scheme to watch this version of the U.S. national team. They are timid for most of the first half against the French, in theory one of the world’s best sides, rarely venturing out of their own end, failing to string together passes, looking very much like a team the French brought in expecting to defeat.

Julian Green scores just ahead of halftime. The French crowd is shocked and goes quiet; in the three previous matches the U.S. failed to score against France. And now the hosts are losing 1-0 to the USA, never a soccer power, and recently not good enough to survive the easiest path to the World Cup known to the game — Concacaf qualifying. Out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986. France’s Mbappe scores in the second half, and it ends 1-1 thanks to U.S. goalkeeper Zach Steffen making two saves in the final seconds.

–Back outside the stadium, interested in buying a long scarf with the logos of both teams, at each end, with the date of the match … but they are sold out, and we join the throngs headed for the tram back to the train station. Another 20-plus minutes jammed in the tram. One of us found a seat, anyway. It is clammy and surprisingly warm.

–Sunday. Up not-too-early, over to the train station, and we get in line at the Paul bakery and load up on pastries and a sandwich for later. We learned a lesson the day before. Fast train to Sete, nice and quiet. Wifi available at no charge (first class!). Take the local train to Agde, and everything is going as it should. What hare-brained scheme?

–Ah, but then the battery to the car is dead because one of us left the lights on, the day before. Crikey! Try the old “push it and pop the clutch” thing. Not a spark. Insurance companies not answering phones on a Sunday. A friend in our home town makes the drive down, God bless him, jumps the battery, we roll home …

And in 24 hours a hare-brained scheme has been hatched and, mostly, brought to fruition. The Yanks playing France and Lyon … we kinda had to go, didn’t we? Didn’t we? Even if it was hare-brained.

Certainly I have instigated worse. Lamer. Sillier. More pointless.

Don’t know how many more HB Schemes I will be part of, going forward. Feels good to get this edition of the chaos on the blog.







1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Roger Grotewold // Jun 10, 2018 at 1:23 PM

    Finally after all of these years, I once again get to read one of Paul Oberjeurge’s columns. It has been quite a few years between them, but it appears that he hasn’t lost his touch as a sportswriter.

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