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His Cup is full

Soccer doesn't really lend itself to television, but who's watching? During the semifinals, everyone.

July 07, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Soccer, to the neophyte, is a terrifically dull TV sport. Unlike the NBA playoffs, say, or the Super Bowl, television resists the game -- the players often look far away, and nothing ostensibly happens until someone scores a goal, which can take anywhere from one to 120 minutes to happen.

It's a chess match between two armies of men who alternately advance and retreat toward opposing goals. Sometimes during this, they make contact with one another and pretend they've been shot. I have seen much better acting watching World Cup than I have on the following TV programs: "Lost," "American Idol," "Desperate Housewives."

This is not necessarily an insult to the above shows. Granted, all of the actors in World Cup are playing the same note: I am in tremendous anguish as I writhe here on the ground. Please end my life now and tell my dear ones I love them. Failing that, could you summon the vintage stretcher?

But within all of this genuflection is a crackling live event, bereft of the natural and unnatural breaks that in most sports are stuffed to the brim with commercials and network promos, not to mention the dreaded in-game sideline report.

The Super Bowl, for instance, is an all-day commitment; the World Cup final on Sunday will play out in two hours and change. There's no doubt-alleviating instant replay, and nobody is evidently mulling which moment deserves to be deemed the Gillette Close Shave of the Day or what the coach is going to tell his players as he jogs off the field at halftime.

I had what I would diagnose as a mild to fair case of World Cup fever when I arrived at Cafe Marly on Melrose on Wednesday to see whether France would beat Portugal to advance to Sunday's final against Italy. I had contracted the fever in Paris, not long after France beat perennial power Brazil to advance to the semis.

In Les Halles, where I watched the game, people honked horns, waved flags, chanted "Allez les Bleus." Weirdly, it looked the same on Melrose just east of La Brea Avenue on Wednesday, after France beat Portugal, except that it was midday and there were maybe just as many people in line at Pink's.

But Melrose became little Paris, with two groups of revelers, the ones who'd been watching on the back patio of Cafe Marly and another group across the street who'd poured out of Joga Bonito, a space sponsored by Nike for World Cup viewing, complete with a grandstand and big-screen TVs.

France's coach is named Raymond Domenech, and he's even hipper looking than Phil Jackson of the Lakers. The camera mostly finds Domenech on the sideline in his dark suit and stylish glasses, arms folded, at once excitable and pensive. I don't really understand what soccer coaches do during the game other than pace and yell at the referees and wonder if they've packed enough clothes to proceed immediately into exile on the Baltic coast if they lose.

But I don't care; I like Domenech's whole aspect. He isn't wearing a headset sponsored by Nextel. He reminds me more of Francois Truffaut in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The French players are TV-worthy characters too, guys with the names of poets, Henry and Zidane and Ribery, a.k.a. Frank Ribery a.k.a. "Scarface," the nickname a reference to the scars on his face from a terrible childhood car accident.

In Paris, Zinedine Zidane's likeness and No. 10 uniform is as ubiquitous as Kobe Bryant's No. 8 jersey is here. "Zizou, Zizou," the fans kept chanting at the restaurant in Les Halles whenever Zidane did something magical with his feet.

The cafe was packed, and an overflow crowd stood for a good two hours watching the TV from the street. A young French woman started a chant of "Allez les Bleus," which brings up a point: Chicks dig the World Cup. It was chicks with whom I was standing in the back of Cafe Marly on Wednesday, craning to see the screen.

It could have been Les Halles. I had asked for the check in pigeon French, even though I was only blocks from home.

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