The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Professor Zidane vs. More Cowbell

Posted by steigs on April 28, 2008

I see Aaron over at Fighting Talker thinks the Swiss 2004 side may have been one of the worst to play in a modern European championship.  I disagree — I actually saw them play a decent game against France.  Average, perhaps, but they didn’t belong among the truly atrocious.  (As I wrote about before, I also saw the 2004 Latvian team and, well, they had a lot of heart.) 

I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in Portugal for Euro 2004.  Alas, I won’t be getting to Germany and Switzerland for this year’s tourney.  (Then again, even if I could get the time off, I don’t think the feeble dollar would allow it.  Sigh.)

I was also lucky enough to get to see the legendary Zinedine Zidane play for France against Switzerland in Portugal’s college town, Coimbra.  What was that like?  Read on after the jump!



Portugal!  I go first to Coimbra, an ancient university town in the center of the country, midway between Lisbon and Porto.  It is a sunny, breezy summer day as I explore the city’s historic neighborhood, which clings to the sides of a steep hill.  In most European cities a good strong height like this — a minor mountain really — would be crowned with a fortress.  In Coimbra you find the university on top, a collection of bland monolithic buildings dating from the mid-century Salazar dictatorship.


In front of the university buildings are several statues, august personages that students can’t resist mocking — one now clutches a cell phone, for example.  They also can’t resist spray painting slogans and jokes on the vast stone canvases that are the sides of the university buildings.  The students are a ghostly presence at the moment, being gone for the summer, mainly seen, happy and gowned, in the graduation photos hanging in the photo shops around town.


The heart of the university is a square with a dramatic view of the Mondego River below, bound for the Atlantic a half-hour away.  A bell tower, known as “A Cabra” (or “the goat”) for the way it nags the students to be on time, rises in a corner of the square.  I explore a spectacular library, the Biblioteca Joanina, that boasts ornate art worthy of a church except the theme here is learning, not Jesus.  A stream of tourists flows through the square, mostly French and Swiss, the two teams playing in Coimbra the next evening.


Tonight, however, is Portugal versus Spain, the most anticipated first round match-up, along with the England-France game.  It features two top-notch teams who are also fierce local rivals.  Throughout Coimbra the red and green Portuguese flag is flying.  Half the shops in town appear to be selling Euro 2004 gear, especially Portugal jerseys and scarves.  I see them in ceramic shops, in furniture stories, everywhere.


Just across the river from the main part of town, the organizers have set up a Euro 2004 fun fair in a park.  The center piece is a pavilion stage with a concrete floor in front of it.  At the far end of the floor is an area of artificial turf carpets set aside for messing about with soccer balls.  Food booths, busy beer vendors and merchandise stands circle the pavilion.


Bands take turns on the stage throughout the afternoon, rock or blues mostly, the sounds echoing all along the river.  By evening a crowd has gathered for the Portugal-Spain game, which, aside from the regional pride involved, will help settle who advances from the group.  The hosts got off to a stumbling start, upset in the tourney’s first game by the unheralded Greeks, before rallying to defeat Russia.  Spain had started with an unimpressive victory over Russia before tying the Greeks.  This means that Portugal and Spain are both in a must-win situation to be sure of qualifying for the knock-out rounds.  If there is a loser, Greece is poised to qualify ahead of that defeated team.


By kick-off, the whole floor is filled with row upon row of standing people, all focused on a giant video screen.  I feel like I am at a concert.  Instead of cheering solos, the crowd goes crazy whenever Portugal gets the ball near Spain’s goal, which is often.  A teenage girl next to me gives a shriek worthy of a boy band whenever the handsome face of Luis Figo, the captain of the Portuguese team and its biggest star, appears on the screen.  There is a collective intensity to the crowd, as if they are trying to will Portugal to victory.


It is a tight game and there is no score at half-time.  Finally, in the 57th minute, Portugal gets a goal.  Forward Nuno Gomes, subbed in at half-time, nails a 20 yard shot into the goal.  Madness ensues.  “Port-U-Gal!” the crowd chants over and over and over.  Rather than responding with attacks after the goal, the Spanish appear pinned back and on the defensive.  The screen shows a shot of sad Spanish fans at the game…and our crowd erupts in cheers.


The Portuguese finish it out, winning 1-0.  “We are the Champions” booms out over the loudspeakers as we disperse.  Traffic grinds nearly to a halt as fans circle Coimbra honking in celebration, Portuguese flags waving with pride.  Meanwhile, the Russians, playing only for pride, have beaten Greece 2-1…but Spain is eliminated anyways on tie-breakers, making the loss all the more bitter.  Ah, Spain, always finding a way to flop.


I spend the next morning in churches.  The old Coimbra cathedral, the Se Velha, is halfway up the hill, covered in plastic while it undergoes a restoration.  The inside is austere, except for the eye-level azuelo tiles.  It feels medieval, as if it predates the Renaissance notion of filling cathedrals with paintings.  It was begun way back in 1162, when Coimbra was serving as Portugal’s capital.


The Church of Santa Cruz at the base of the hill played a role in one of the most macabre tales of European royalty.  Gather round, and I will relate the tragedy of Dom Pedro and Ines de Castro, often a classic theme of Portuguese poets.  Pedro was a 14th century heir to the Portuguese throne.  He fell madly and deeply in love with Ines.  Unfortunately, Ines was the daughter of a Spanish noble B and the king forbade the marriage for political reasons.


Pedro and Ines ignored the king and were secretly married.  Unhappy with this, the king eventually sanctioned the murder of Ines to break the two apart.  When, years later, Pedro became king he had the murderers of Ines killed — supposedly personally ripping their hearts out — and then had the body of Ines exhumed.  It was in the Church of the Santa Cruz that he had Ines placed on a throne alongside him B and insisted that courtiers pay homage to her remains as if she were the queen.  Oh, my.


Who needs horror films, huh?  Real history has plenty of gore and guts.  In the church itself, which is elegant and neat today, I try to picture the scene but cannot pull it off.  It would take the twisted imagination of an Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King, I suppose, to manage it.


Outside, the church square is busy with people uninterested in this aspect of its history — the French and Swiss fans are taking over the town.  The French fans have agreed on a uniform — the blue French jersey.  I see them in the dozens.  The Swiss fans have agreed only on a color, red, which they wear in a variety of ways, mostly t-shirts and jerseys. 


The Swiss symbol is the familiar red cross, and the numerous Swiss fans are giving Coimbra the look of a some sort of humanitarian spring break.  Relief workers gone wild!  The game plan for the fans quickly becomes obvious.  Dress in team jersey (French) or color (Swiss).  Locate a sidewalk café.  Start ordering beers.  Make noise at opposing fans who pass by.  Order more beers.  Don’t budge until it is close to the early evening kick-off.


I see a group of French fans who have brought their own live rooster B to embody the mascot on the team’s jersey — and whenever it crows there is a round of laughter and drinking.  Some Swiss fans go for Green Bay Packer-style “cheesehead” hats in honor of their homeland’s famous dairy products.  There are dueling chants, “Allez les Blues” versus “Hopp Schweiz.”  It is a friendly feeling rivalry.  It is the third and final game of the group stage of the tourney and the French are confident — a draw will mean they advance — and the Swiss know they’re basically eliminated, absent an unlikely upset victory.


The French and Swiss fans appear to come in two types — either groups of young men or middle-aged couples.  As I wander the town, up the twisting narrow pathways on the historic hill or along the flatter lanes of the downtown shopping district near the Church of the Santa Cruz, I see a variety of other fans, dotted in the midst of the overwhelming blue and red tide.  They wear their colors, demonstrating the Europe-wide nature of the tourney B the English, Swedes, Scots (in kilts, of course), the Dutch, Germans and even a few Latvians.  Team jersey as party name tag.  I eat in a riverside café, conspicuous by my lack of team colors.  I regret not wearing my DC United jersey to blend in better.  I suppose I should buy a US jersey to wear to my next international tourney. 


Along towards mid-afternoon the fans begin drifting towards the stadium.  It sits at the foot of the central hill on the opposite side from the Church of Santa Cruz.  I decide to drift that way too.  The neighborhood around the stadium is modern, filled with tall well-kept apartment buildings and a shopping mall that would look at home in any American suburb.


I fall in with a pack of Swiss fans who have paused at, of all places, a Chinese restaurant to consume a series of pre-game beers.  Sensing an opportunity, the restaurant staff have set up shop on a card table in front of their place, quickly selling can after can of mediocre Portuguese beer.  The Swiss fans are too happy and too involved in their drinking for me to succeed in making conversation.  They do capture the attention of a trio of local kids up on the balcony of the apartment above the Chinese restaurant.


Swit-zer-land!” chant the kids.

Swit-zer-land!” respond the Swiss. 

Swit-zer-land!” chant the kids.

Swit-zer-land!” respond the Swiss.

This goes back and forth a few more times before the Swiss, well-mannered guests even while getting drunk, switch to “Port-u-gal!”

The kids are charmed and respond in kind.  “Port-u-gal!”



A group of passing French fans try to match this by chanting “Port-u-gal!” themselves but are ignored.  They return to chanting “Allez les Blues.”

Swit-zer-land!”  At this point one of the Swiss guys starts ringing a cowbell, which I will learn is a common Swiss fan noisemaker, and I take this as my cue to move along.


The Coimbra stadium is spanking new, complete with a business center behind reflective glass.  Euro 2004 has meant a wave of stadium building and refurbishment for Portugal.  In the future the stadium will serve as home base for Academica, an average team in the Portuguese league.  Good name for a college town team, Academica.


There is a fun fair on the grounds of the stadium, as there will prove to be at all Euro 2004 games.  The highlight is the human foosball game, where people can take a spot on the giant-sized table and try to score.  They can’t, alas, spin completely around the way real foosball players do.  Still, it looks like a lot of fun.  So many people are waiting I don’t manage to get a turn.


Inside the stadium, which seats around 25,000, it is about 40 percent French and 40 percent Swiss with the rest a mix of locals and neutrals like myself.  I am actually in the front row, about the middle of one side of the field, perhaps 25 yards from goal.  Off in the distance to my right the section behind the goal is completely Swiss red.  Near me, behind the goal to the left, is the mass of French blue.  The other sections are mixed, like mine.  I am seated beside a pair of Germans, Michael and Jurgen.  They keep getting into arguments with security over whether they can hang their German flag on the railing.  Otherwise, my section is mostly young Portuguese here to see the stars play.


At the concession stand I grab an over-priced croissant and a non-alcoholic beer.  A French fan ahead of me throws a fit because the concession stand staff are speaking English to everyone as a universal default language.  “How come not French?” he says, outraged, in English.  “It is a French game!”  The Portuguese fan behind me and I exchange looks, and I try not to laugh at how much of a French stereotype he is.


The game begins relatively evenly, not much in the way of scoring chances.  Meanwhile, not everyone is living up to stereotypes.  The German Michael beside me turns out to be an obsessive fan of the French star Zidane.  He is wearing Zidane’s Real Madrid jersey, which in of itself is not that unusual, and he simply stares intently at everything the great player does.  It’s like Zidane is the only player on the field.  He is continually updating his friend on “Zizou” and making sure his friend saw this pass or that flick.  (Even though they are speaking German, the pointing and the continual “Zizou” makes it obvious what he is doing.)  Whenever Zidane gets close to us, only perhaps 15 yards away from our front row location, he leaps up to the railing, making the already annoyed security types nervous.  When the great man moves away Michael sits down again.


About minute 20, Michael gets ecstatic.  So do a lot of others.  Zidane scores on a header from a corner kick.  1-0, France.  The defending champions are on their way!  But the Swiss hit back quickly. The youngster Vonlanthen, just 18, scores on a give and go.  It is 1-1, and the cowbells are clanging.  The French certainly look superior as individual players but they don’t seem totally in synch as a team.  “Allez les Bleus!” urges the French portion of the stadium.  “Hopp Schweiz!” urges the Swiss part.


Drawn by Michael’s passion, I sometimes focus on Zidane as well.  He demonstrates a casual, calm mastery of the ball, dribbling easily, passing swiftly and accurately.  There are reasons he is often called the best player in the world.  At one point he is pressed by a Swiss defender and simply flicks the ball up and over his own head, spins around and dribbles on his way, leaving the defender stunned in his wake. 


Several of the French players were on the World Cup-winning team of 1998 but the nature of this team is quite different.  Back in 1998 the French were rock solid on defense and weak up front, relying on the midfield magic of Zidane for much of their punch.  Now the back-line is suspect as age catches up with their stars and the forwards, led by high-scoring Thierry Henry, are thrilling.  Or at least they are thrilling when in a rhythm.  Tonight, Henry has done little and even gets a yellow card for diving.  The Portuguese around me ooh and aah anyway.  Michael beside me is rapt, watching his idol.  I attempt to make Zidane-related conversation with Michael but his reply is so curt I can tell that he prefers not to be distracted.


The second half starts with the game still 1-1.  The Swiss, perhaps pleasantly surprised to be tied with the vaunted French, seem encouraged and move the ball around well, working hard.  There’s a lot of “Hopp Schweiz” coming from the far end.


The French gradually settle the game and regain control, holding the ball for longer and longer spells, making the Swiss chase, wearing them down.  It remains 1-1 when the French sub in forward Louis Saha of Manchester United about minute 75.  A nice luxury, having Man U players in reserve.  Right afterwards the French win a free kick.  The mighty Zizou lobs it into a mess of players, right on to Saha’s head, who flicks it forward.  Henry is the first to reach it and he calmly scores.  2-1, France.


Typical forward.  Looks like he’s not involved most of the game and then in a few seconds he changes everything.  Overjoyed, the French fans begin singing “La Marseillaise,” a rather striking song in the first place but truly awe-inspiring when sung by 10,000 happy people.


The Swiss, who had been getting their hopes up of achieving a respectable draw, now come desperately forward in search of goal to tie it back up.  The French hit them on the counter-attack, Henry racing by with the ball right in front of us — va va voom, as his ad campaign says — and, making a quick cut inside the defender, finds himself free on goal.  There is little the Swiss goalie can do facing one of the most ominous sights in world soccer, Thierry Henry with the ball and clear of the defense.  Henry zips the ball by him.  3-1, France.  Game over.


La Marseillaise” gets even louder.  No word on the simultaneous England-Croatia game, the other match in the group.  It doesn’t matter much for the French — they’re through to the quarter-finals.  (England wins a wild 4-2 game to advance as well.)  After the game, the players on each team applaud their respective sets of fans.  As we leave, the Swiss are saying to themselves “at least we scared you” and the French are praising Zidane and Henry.  It’s good to have the superstars on your side.


One Response to “Professor Zidane vs. More Cowbell”

  1. Aaron S. said

    Those were more or less candidates. I left the question open. Frankly, that 1992 England team looks the worst to me.

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