An American in Paris, With Scots

The Scotsman in the blue tartan kilt was swaying a bit as he put the condiments on his hot dog. “Ah’ve been drrrinking since nine o’clock this mornin’,” he cheerfully confided as we stood at the Parc des Princes concession stand, “but ah feel prretty good.”

He did seem to be feeling “prretty good,” as did his 15,000 or so countrymen, most of them also wearing their kilts. At that moment, half an hour before the France-Scotland Euro qualifier, the majority of them were still outside the stadium, happily draining the dregs from their bottles and flasks before coming through the gates and into the alcohol-free stade. My new friend with the hot dog must have run out early.

Before tonight I’d considered myself an anomaly because of my desire to travel to a foreign country (from Seattle to Paris, in my case) to see a football game. Now it appeared that I was among the majority. Alas, the rest of them were rooting for the other side; as a foreign France fan I was apparently alone. These were fans of the Scotland team, and they were everywhere.

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I’d seen these men in their kilts around town in the four days I’d been in Paris, but I’d assumed they were there for the Rugby World Cup, going on the same week. Why would anyone (aside from me, of course) travel across national borders to see a football team? Particularly one that was destined to lose?

Because Scotland would lose. Of course they would. France, the World Cup runners up in 2006, had lost only a handful of games since World Cup qualifying. Scotland hadn’t even made it as far as World Cup. Their previous victory over France, in October of 2006 in Glasgow, had been an anomaly. A never-to-be-repeated miracle. And now they were here to love their team through the opposite of that accomplishment.

The first fan I chatted with, on the night before the match, had brought his eleven-year-old son from Scotland to see the game. “It’s his first away match,” he confided proudly. “I wanted him to see what it was like.”

And what was it like? Well, from my perspective it was polite yet fun-loving men in kilts living for several days fueled by massive quantities of alcohol and a passion for their team which surpassed all reason.

Since I’d traveled 5,000 miles to see this game myself, though, I can’t exactly point fingers when it comes to that whole “surpassing all reason” thing. Also, in the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I have to say that not every Scottish fan was a) male, or b) drinking. But those who weren’t were kind of boring and normal, so this essay is not about them.

But I digress.

When I walked toward Parc des Princes two hours before the match, Scottish fans were wall-to-wall in the neighborhood around the stadium, guzzling beer and stronger drinks as they braced themselves for the game. I myself went early because I wanted to spend as much time as possible viewing everything that was going on before the match.

And what was going on? Well, to give you a snapshot, let’s take a look at the restroom situation.

To find the restrooms in my section of the stadium required locating a steep concrete staircase which led down to a concrete landing. On this landing the universal male/female signs — which pointed down toward additional staircases — were posted at well above eye-level. Finding these signs was difficult even for those of us who were sober. For the Scotsmen who weren’t, it was a mind-boggling challenge. Each time I headed in or out I would find several of them standing there, befuddled, staring from walls to stairs and back again. At one point I took pity on a lost soul and pointed him in the direction of the men’s room. He rewarded me with a beatific smile of gratitude before heading down the stairs, clutching the railing with both hands.

There apparently were not enough Toilet Traffic Directors, though, because I visited the ladies room twice and discovered that most of the toilet seats were up on both occasions. One would think that the absence of urinals in a ladies room might have been a tipoff that this wasn’t the right place, but apparently not. Perhaps they just figured it was a French thing.

Yet given the amount of alcohol that had been consumed and the passions that football can inspire, I found the group to be, on the whole, incredibly polite and well-behaved.

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And then the game began.

If I’d walked into the match not knowing where it was being played, I would have assumed it was a Scotland home game. The Scottish fans were louder and more boisterous, and they weren’t about blending in. The ubiquitous kilts and Scottish banners were a statement to the world that these were Scottish fans, and their entire existence that evening revolved around supporting their team.

During the game France played well, as always, controlling the ball for long stretches while executing perfect pass after perfect pass. Scotland played strong defense, though, and by the end of the first half France’s inability to score was becoming worrisome. My French guys did an excellent job of driving the ball up the wings, but time after time their crosses let them down, usually sailing ten feet past the goal and directly to a Scotland defender.

By the second half I was feeling the same painful sense of inevitability that had accompanied the first Scotland qualifier the previous October. For some reason a France victory was, again, not meant to be. Somehow I was not surprised when the Scotland team, perhaps fueled by the crowd’s energy and alcohol fumes, gave James McFadden service for that one perfect and unstoppable strike. The ball hit the back of the net and the stadium erupted.

It was the only goal of the game. Final score, France 0-1 Scotland.

France fans slipped out immediately after the final whistle. The Scotland fans, however… Well, they needed to savor this for awhile. For ten or fifteen minutes after the game they stayed in the stands, singing and chanting their love for and pride in their team. I may not have shared the sentiment, but I understood it. I’d felt the same thing as my Seattle Sounders, a USL team (division below the US MLS) had demolished two MLS sides in a row in the US Open Cup — first Chivas USA, 3-1, then the Colorado Rapids, 5-0. I understood the joy and shock and amazement you feel as your beloved David manages, against all odds, to take out a feared and powerful Goliath.

Eventually the fans began to file out, and I joined them in their parade up the local street, which had been closed to traffic for the occasion. I walked up the street among thousands of Scots, all of whom were still in shock at what they’d witnessed. Several of them pulled out their bagpipes and drums along the way. The procession was euphoric yet surprisingly calm.

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When I got back to my hotel I found two young Scotsmen sitting on the front step, languidly waving their Scottish flags for no audience but themselves. I stopped to chat for a bit, enjoying a full English conversation for the first time in several days, and we talked about the experience of the game — my disappointment, their awe-struck amazement.

“We beat France,” one said, reverently.

“Twice!” his friend chimed in.

It was hard for me to be upset that night, despite the fact that my beloved France team had somehow dropped from first to third place in their qualifying group, a performance that could easily keep them from advancing to the Euro 2008 championships next summer.

I knew this, in my head, and it was painful.

Yet in my heart I kept seeing kilts, and hearing bagpipes, and remembering those two flags, reverently waving in the dark for an audience of two.

Somehow it’s hard to feel grief in the face of so much joy.

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