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Traveler's Journal: Europe

When in Rome, Root for the Home Team

Finding friends and fun during the World Cup

June 07, 1998|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I've danced with Italian men in the piazzas of Rome at 2 a.m. I've roared "Deutschland!" with students in Munich until my lungs ached. I've hollered for Holland with drunken comrades in Amsterdam.

All with equal enthusiasm.

The World Cup may be a matter of national pride abroad. To me, an American in Europe during the 1990 and 1994 championships, it was all about local culture and free beer. During those wild weeks of national team match-ups, there is no better way to gather experiences and friends in Europe than to root, root, root for the home team.

Those heading for France to attend this year's World Cup (Wednesday to July 12) will have fun. But to really appreciate the cup, watch the games from neighborhood cafes and taverns.

It's simple. Check the International Herald Tribune to see whether your host country is playing that day and plan accordingly. Even better, try to hop over to the countries that make it to the quarter- and semifinal matches.

Rule 1: Stay away from France. It will be a mob scene. Rooting for the U.S.A. won't get you into trouble, and not just because our team is inferior. The Europeans are still settling scores as old as Hannibal. You'll get the idea when you hear English hooligans chant, "Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah" during matches against Germany.

Rule 2: Buy the home team T-shirt. Be sure not to wear it when you leave the country. I got caught wearing an Irish shirt in Venice a few days after Italy had lost an early match to Ireland in 1994. A sticky situation. But in Munich, people fell all over themselves to help me when I had trouble working a washing machine in a coin laundry. I was wearing my German shirt.

Rule 3: Talk the talk. No translation books are available, just listen and learn. It's Forza Italia and Hup Holland Hup and, of course, Deutschland! In England, just gnash your teeth at key moments and growl, "Come on boys, don't let us down."

Rule 4: Drink the local beer. It shows you truly care and are not just a poacher. In no time someone will be saying, "Buy my American friend another round."

Follow these guidelines, and you will have a wealth of memorable hangovers and stories to tell.

Forza Italia--Rome is the eternal soccer city. Its large piazzas provide plenty of room for dancing after victories and rioting after losses. It can be hard to tell the difference at times.

Soon after an Italian victory over Norway in 1994, the car horns began. A tradition, and there was no way to sleep through it. The entire country had exhaled, and this wasn't even the final match.

The Piazza Venezia was jammed, not with cars, but people, young men mostly. Soccer balls ricocheted from one head to another. I leaped and was elbowed in the back as the ball arrived. The guy behind me fired off a few words, none of which I understood. I shrugged.

He said, "You American?"

I nodded.

"You OK, Joe," he said.

We high-fived.

Deutschland!--Munich takes the edge off the harsh German soccer fan. A little.

I was walking down the street one day, wearing my German colors, and a homeless man sitting in a doorway, barely conscious, looked up and came to life. "DEUTSCHLAND!" The furor of spontaneous nationalism was more than I was prepared for. Best to keep the shirt under wraps until game time.

Hup Holland Hup--Television sets on the sidewalk. It gets your attention.

Up and down Amsterdam's Utrechtsestraat, people sat outside cafes watching the '94 World Cup because getting inside was impossible. Cafe Collins was an exception.

Ton, the owner, greeted me with a smile (was it my shirt?). He had once worked concert tours for Phil Collins and named his cafe after him. There is a letter, prominently displayed, from Collins' lawyer, telling Ton to make it clear that Phil is not involved.

We watched Holland pick apart Ireland. You don't need to know the words to sing with Dutch fans, just fake it. When Holland won, 2-0, fireworks filled the sky. And beer was on the house.

Com-mon boys--London, of course, is the capital of football hooliganism. Head for a pub, any pub, as long as it's in a working-class neighborhood.

England and Cameroon played in 1990. Not all the English were rooting for England.

Two fellows, an anarchist and a communist, sat with me at the bar, making me the right wing politically for the first time in my life. Our discussion of the state of politics was cut short when Cameroon took a 2-1 lead.

"Ha, overrated," the anarchist shouted. "Told ya, I did."

"You should be a patriot," another patron yelled.

"Why?" the anarchist shouted back.

I proceeded to hear about how Cameroon was once a colony exploited by capitalism and how appropriate it would be to lose to them. It was not to be. England rallied for a 3-2 victory.

The anarchist turned to me and said, "There's a protest at the South African Embassy. We could use you. Have another pint?"

Foster is sportswriter for The Times' Orange County edition.

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