Grail Quest

ONE day in early 1998, when I was busy pretending to study for the SPM examinations, my father arrived home and announced he had tickets to the World Cup. This caused mass delirium in the Raj household, the solitary exception being my brother, who decided that he was going to be too occupied with PMR to go to France.

Inspired by his sensible outlook, and demonstrating the foresight and sound judgment that has led to more than one of these columns being hurriedly completed on the back of a napkin three minutes before deadline, I declared my candidacy for the spare ticket with some measure of aplomb. And that is how, in the middle of the year, we found ourselves on our way to Paris.

I will never forget my first meal in France, not because of its contents but because of the tablemat. It featured a garishly coloured tableaux of the conflict between “footiphiles” and “footiphobes”. This was utterly astonishing to my 17-year-old brain: there were people who didn’t like football? Madness, sheer madness.

Of course, that wasn’t the only divergence of opinion in a country where Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front party – which ran on a platform that called for strict immigration restrictions – was gaining in power and influence. Then there was Michel Platini, the former midfield maestro of the French national team, whose successful organisation of the event was being drowned out by the usual rumblings: no one knew how the team would perform, having automatically qualified for the competition as hosts, and surely the money spent on constructing the massive Stade de France could have been spent on other things.

Anyway, my father and I proceed to get splendidly lost on the Paris subway, and emerge in a strange neighbourhood close to the city’s centre. We try asking a couple of people for directions, but one man just keeps walking past and another favours us with a very Gallic shrug. And then we see him – a hairy chap, splendidly mustachioed and chomping an enormous cigar, leaning against the door of his cab.

“He looks like he’s Indian,” my father says.

“Maybe he’s lost too,” I say, delighted by my wit.

My father smacks me affectionately and saunters over to Cigar Man. While they talk I look around at the shops, and grow ever more perplexed. There are sarees in the windows, a grocery store wallpapered with faded posters of Bollywood stars, and from the open door of a nearby restaurant waft hints of spices and sitars. By now my father is beckoning me over, so I shake the hand of Cigar Man and we chuck our luggage into the boot.

“Are we going to the hotel?” I ask.

“No,” my father says, deathly serious. “We’re going to dinner.”

It turns out that we’ve stumbled into a Tamil community in the middle of Paris. Our first meal in the city is an authentic French repast of fish curry and dhal, with some delicious homemade bread. We eat at a long table with about eight other people. I ask Cigar Man if these are his relatives. “No,” he says, “but we are all family.” I stop asking questions.

After dinner he lights a cigarette, smaller but somehow even more noxious. He and my father talk for what seems like ages. The community has been here for two generations. His children speak more French than Tamil, and don’t want to go back to Sri Lanka. They only watch French movies. My father laughs at this and tells Cigarette Man that I’ve never seen a Tamil movie in my life and spend far too much time watching Chinese movies. I blush prettily. They talk about Le Pen, they talk about Platini, they talk about Arsène Wenger, the French manager in charge of my father's beloved Arsenal. Then our host stubs out his cigarette, reaches for a cup of cordial so potent it would give a hummingbird diabetes, and issues a remarkable proclamation.

“France is going to win the World Cup,” he says. “3-0 in the final.”

I laugh, politely. My father slaps Cordial Man on the back and grins the grin that has sold a thousand encyclopedias. The conversation peters out, and we are ferried to our hotel, where my father initiates a mortifying conversation with the pretty young receptionist and convinces her to give me her number. I scrounge courage for a week, then call to discover she has returned home for the summer. At least the football provides sufficient balm.

France’s dramatic progression sweeps the rest of the country up as well. Talismanic playmaker Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent, is sent off in the early stages of the World Cup, jeopardising his place in the team. France grinds their way to a quarter-final victory against Paraguay with an unlikely golden goal from ageing captain Laurent Blanc, then beats Croata 2-1 in the semifinal in the Stade de France, my father and I watching, with two even more unlikely goals from Guadeloupe-born fullback Lilian Thuram – the only goals of his 142-cap, 15-year international career.

We’re not even meant to be there, because France isn’t either, and a fan burgeoning with newfound national pride had offered my father a huge sum of money for the tickets. By the time he’d gone back to the hotel to pick them up, the would-be buyer had disappeared; instead we bump into, of all people, Wenger and Platini. Platini is stockier than he is in the old tapes I have, and Wenger looks taller. My father shakes the Arsenal man’s hand and says “Good job”. I shake Platini’s but am too shy to meet his eyes.

During the final, Zidane, back from suspension, soars above a sea of static yellow Brazilian jerseys to head home the first goal. He vaults over the advertising hoardings and runs to the crowd, ten or so feet below where we are sitting. Then he looks up at the VIP box, where Platini sits, blue French jersey peeking out from under his suit jacket. Zidane rises to score another, Brazil is punch-drunk, and late in the game Emmanuel Petit, he of the flowing blond locks, gets a third.

A marvelously multicultural French team lifts the trophy, and the spectre of Le Pen abates for a while, but he and his daughter cast a shadow over French politics for years afterwards. But I only read these things from afar, in dispassionate print; far more vivid is the memory of my father, turning to me with eyes as wide as his smile after Petit’s strike arcs into the net.

“3-0!” he exults. I beam and nod. We’re both thinking of our friend, waving cheerfully as his cab pulls away.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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World Cup , France , football , France 1998


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