It's All Gone Quiet Over Here

TOTAL FILM, JUNE 1998

For the World Cup Finals in 1998, Total Film magazine commissioned writers to report 'live' each night from France, filing their copy 'as it happened'. The reports were then compiled into a souvenir of the event. This is my report from Toulouse on the night of 22 June...

“Toulouse welcomes the world,” trumpeted mayor Dominique Baudis on the eve of France 98. But this week’s riots in Marseilles must have changed his mind. England fans arrive to find a ghost town. Shops around the Stade de Toulouse are closed, windows shuttered, owners away. The ‘Bar Anglais’ signs have taken on a new meaning.

As a result, Tommy’s Café, a poky tourist trap but, crucially, one still serving alcohol, has drawn a sizable crowd. Inside its smoky interior, there is only one topic of conversation: Why the hell won’t Hoddle start with Beckham and Owen?

“I just don’t get that bloke,” says Nick, a sales manager from London who shakes his head sadly to emphasize just how disappointing he finds the manager’s logic. “He makes mad decisions.”

“He should have brought Dion Dublin,” pipes up his girlfriend Kathy, who surprises no one by adding: “I’m a Coventry fan.”

Match time is approaching but with the next beer an uncertain proposition, there’s a certain reluctance to set off: fans shuffle out sluggishly – though most believe they’re on their way to watch a victory.

“It’ll be tight, Romania are no dummies, but we’ll win, I think...” says Terry, an undertaker whose every utterance retains an air of caution.

A French bus pulls up, brakes wheezing dramatically as the driver yanks open the door and barks “Gratuite! Gratuite!”

The city council has laid on buses to take England fans to the ground free of charge. The intention is to get everyone there in an orderly fashion. At the first set of lights though, someone on the bus sees a pal across the street: “Quick, get on – it’s free!” he shouts. The friend – and around sixty acquaintances – make a mad dash for the bus, weaving through, and in some case clambering over, the other traffic to a chorus of horns and French swearwords. When the bus driver refuses to open the door, the fans inside the bus simply open the windows and the new wave of passengers pours in. The driver contemplates the clambering chaos, offers a perfect Gallic shrug and pulls out when the bus can fit no more.

“The rocket is launched!” trumpets a fan in a red ‘66 shirt as he proudly displays a contender for largest spliff in the world. It’s duly passed around the bus as the chants begin.

When “Ri-o, Ri-o Ferdinand,” is followed by “We are the Chelsea haters”, a large sweating man says, to anyone who will listen: “I think they are West Ham fans. I am from Malta – we love the England team. Have you any spare tickets? I’ve promised my girlfriend I’ll get us in.” His girlfriend looks up expectantly. She is Eastern European, wearing clothes that are too tight and looks barely 16.

“I will pay up to £600,” says the man from Malta.

Any potential negotiations are halted by the bus arriving at the stadium, where long queues and copious random searches mean everyone’s lucky to make their seats before kick-off.

The noise inside the Stade de Toulouse is compelling. For the first time today, it feels like the World Cup. England flags and banners are around all four sides of the ground and the songs are continuous, climaxing in a rendition of the national anthem that even the French press are later moved to describe as “Un moment qui nous a montré la beauté de football”.

 

By midway through the first half, the crowd is somewhat quieter. England are well below par: almost the entire team seem out of sorts and there are pessimistic mumbles maundering through the crowd. The fans sense it’s all going to go wrong and are proved horribly correct when Viorel Moldovan scores. Previously invisible groups of Romanians appear suddenly in pockets around the ground, dancing and waving their flags joyously.

 

England fans are running out of patience and, while they hold back from actually booing, dissatisfied mutterings can be heard every time the off-form Sheringham gives away possession. The regular chants for Owen whenever he runs along the touchline have taken on an angry tone, a rebuke to Hoddle for delaying his entry.

When the 18-year-old finally comes on, the relief is palpable. For the first time in over an hour, the England fans get behind their team, screaming desperate support to encourage an equalizer. It comes. It’s Owen. The crowd go beyond wild.

And then comes the wake-up call. Dan Petrescu’s 90th minute winner silences the stadium. A few hundred Romanians dance as the crowd shuffles out, distraught. There is no trouble in Toulouse. No brawls, no riots. It’s all gone very quiet.

Toulouse, 11pm

© 2020 by Aubrey Day.