In the summer of 1998, I’d taken up a 6-month attachment from my substantive post at BBC World Service to become Sports News Correspondent for BBC 5 live. The start of the job coincided with the Football World Cup in France. It was a great opportunity for me, which led to a 15 amazing years in post.
A couple of weeks into the job however, I was beginning to wonder if I’d made the right decision! I was working closely with the 5 live programme teams, as fine a bunch of people as you could ever hope to be stuck with. Circumstances were difficult though as most of our reporting was covering rioting fans, on the cobbled streets of several French cities, wreathed in tear gas, surrounded by broken glass. Sleep was fairly elusive; we were travelling all over the place and the nearest we’d got to a game of football was an impromptu kick-around in the centre of Metz on a street-lit Sunday night. When I finally made it inside a stadium, it was to watch England lose on penalties to Argentina in the quarter finals. Owen’s wonder goal, Beckham’s sending off, yes, that game. There were the obligatory few scuffles around the stadium afterwards, leading to another late night on what we called ‘Hoolie-watch’ and early start to fill in breakfast show listeners.
With England gone my role reverted to ‘FIFA-watch’: a succession of wearisome press conferences with the organizing committee who had little good to say about English football, or their fans. To break up the tedium, I spent a day in the searing heat at the Brazil training session and press conference ahead of the final, squashed against a wire fence by dozens of crews and reporters from the highly competitive and sharp-elbowed Brazilian media outlets. I was waiting on a promise to speak to Leonardo, the only Brazilian player whose English was up to an interview. I knew if I moved from my position, there’d be no chance. I’m not sure my scream was silent when at the end of the session, he disappeared rapidly down the tunnel to the changing rooms without stopping for anyone. I did get four words in English from Taffarel, goalkeeping hero of the Brazilian team for his two penalty saves in the semi-final. I asked him if he was looking forward to pens again in the final. “No! No! My heart!” he replied. Not exactly a triumph of an interview.
Come the day of the final, Paris was buzzing of course. I’d been despatched to cover the FIFA pre-match press conference which happened to be taking place in the bowels of the Stade de France, venue for the final, a match for which all media tickets had long since been distributed, none of them in my direction. Stuck in the media centre, I’d missed out on the late-return ticket draw and was resigned to watching the final on a TV monitor. With kick off minutes away, it occurred to me that stadium security was all local, and given Les Bleus were 90 minutes from glory, their attention might have slipped a bit. Sure enough, as I brazened it out past the turnstiles, waving my accreditation badge, none of the few remaining stewards was interested in checking if I had a ticket.
Inside, the noise was incredible, the place was seething. I figured If I could find a gangway I might get to see something. Eventually, after about 10 minutes, I’d got behind the ground level wheelchair access area. Right at the back there was an ice-cream seller, who’d abandoned his duties, parked his cart, and jumped onto it for a great view of the action. I looked at him, He looked at me and stretched out an arm to haul me up and balance out the load. His joy when Zidane headed home the first of the three French goals that afternoon was an unforgettable ecstasy. For the rest of the game he hollered, twitched, cringed, jumped up and down, fell off, got back on and did it all again about half a dozen times. I swear he exclaimed ‘Oo la la!’ at the final whistle.
He delivered an uplifting tonic after several tough weeks where the joy of sport had for me been rather suffocated by the circumstances. On subsequent occasions, when professional obligations and off-field machinations threatened to flatten all pleasure from covering sport, Ii was good to recall my 75 minutes with the Parisian ice-cream seller, even if he didn’t have any bloomin' Magnums left.
Memory added on March 5, 2021
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