The first matches in the group stage are now complete. The final match in the sequence was Group F, the USA versus Thailand. We have seen four of the matches in person and watched all but two of the others on local television.
Nigeria versus Norway was the first match held in Reims. Norway won it, but Nigeria had their chances. The refereeing in this match was strange – Nigeria was getting very harsh treatment from start to finish – to the point that we began wondering if it was a racial thing. Here is a study done of reffing in MLS which shows that brown-skinned players are consistently called for fouls at a higher rate than white-skinned players. Norway was certainly the better team and I can’t honestly say that the referee changed the outcome. But still…
Back in Paris we watched Argentina versus Japan. Here the refereeing was poor again and it did affect the result. Argentina parked the bus from the opening whistle. Their keeper was time-wasting on goal kicks within the first 20 minutes (never one admonishment from the ref), and they always had 11 players behind the ball. Their best player, Banini, made several obvious dives. The referee bought them hook-line-and-sinker, issuing yellow cards to three Japanese players. Only one of those cards looked possibly justified to my eye.
Japan circled the Argentine box constantly yet never got off a single shot from inside. They seemed unwilling to shoot from distance even though the one time they did, they nearly scored. Argentina’s bunkering game plan worked perfectly as they earned their first-ever World Cup point.
Back in Reims, we watched the USA demolish Thailand. It was evident from the opening whistle that Thailand was overmatched. The Thai team have only one player, their forward Nildhamrong, who matches up physically to the US players. Alex Morgan is not a large woman, yet she towered over her marking Thai defender. The Americans’ advantage was starker with Horan, Ertz, Dahlkemper and especially Mewis.
Several US players, including Lindsey Horan, got their first-ever World Cup goals en route to a 13-0 stomping. In group stage play, goal difference is critical. If the USA is to win their group, they may need every one of those thirteen goals to best Sweden, who could conceivably put a dozen past the hapless Thais. Later in the tournament, when each game is single elimination, running up the score is not required and would be remarkable.
One odd note – take it for what it’s worth. During US warmups, the players take shots on goal as the keepers take turns trying to stop them. The keepers doing this were Naeher and Franch, but not Harris. Does this mean Adriana is now the #2 keeper? I suspect it does.
Upsets so far: Australia losing to Italy, Argentina drawing Japan, and, debatably Chile only losing to Sweden by two goals.
Off the pitch
The ticketing issues in Paris turned out to be a one-time problem. Attendance for the Argentina-Japan match was about half that of the opener, so the opener’s security delays pre-match and crowding post-match were not issues.
Reims stadium is much smaller, at 21,000 capacity, and the experience less intimidating for the first-time fan. The park was about half-full for the Nigeria Norway match. There were artificial delays getting into the stadium, as the staff for the security patdown was ten men and five women. Since the crowd’s gender mix was about opposite of that, there were long lines for women’s security whilst the male stewards and partners stood around watching.
For the USA Thailand match at Reims, the stadium was nearly full. However, management had noticed the security problem from the first match (kudos to them) and the security staff had many more women than men. Entrance was smooth and quick.
None of the World Cup venues in France serve alcohol. They offer only generic non-alcoholic beer (made by Kronenbourg but since they are not a FIFA sponsor, unlabeled). Of all the attendees, the Australian fans seemed the most upset or bemused by this. Others, including yours truly, didn’t even notice as French beer is generally swill whether alcoholic or not.
Away from the stadium
Reims has one sports bar, Mr. Fogg’s, which I can heartily recommend. It has become the central gathering point for the many fans wishing to watch matches that are not available on the hotel room TV.
We met three Thorns fans there, young women from Ireland making their first ever European soccer trip together. They came to Reims to see Tobin Heath, which also explains their love of the Thorns. They are the only Thorns fans we have met not from the USA. We’ve also met folks from Cincinnati (not yet sold on Fanendo Adi), Nashville, Austin, Port Townsend, and Los Angeles. And, of course, a large contingent of Portlanders.
The USA team hotel (a Best Western) is just down the street from our lodgings. Each day there were rumors about when the team practice would be held and a crowd assembles near the team bus. Some folks have waited more than two hours just for a glimpse of the USWNT players walking down a short set of steps and on to a bus.
Security around the USWNT is very tight. We saw a policeman scanning the bottom of the team bus with a mirror. The bus entrance to the stadium is patrolled by machine-gun toting soldiers. Surely there are other less obvious measures being taken. Security in general is tight, as France has had many terror attacks on public spaces recently. We were patted down entering the FIFA Fan Experience space. Police are very visible at all the main squares and attractions in Reims and Paris.
In Paris, we saw almost nothing about the World Cup anywhere and nobody we spoke to was aware of it. In Reims, it’s the opposite – there are posters and decorations and billboards all over town and everyone is talking about the event. Reims is a much smaller city and clearly their tourism folks are making a big effort.
Some things we’ve noticed in France
Trains. Between subways, trams and mainline service you can get anywhere in France in a hurry without driving. The TGV train from Paris to Reims (88 miles apart) takes 45 minutes with the train going 185 mph once clear of town – imagine traveling from downtown Portland to downtown Seattle in less than 90 minutes. The conductor apologized when the train was once ten minutes late due to construction. You can get halfway across Paris in 30 minutes on a clean quiet subway without speaking or reading French at all.
Shutters. The older buildings in France, which is most of them, have shutters instead of window blinds. If you want privacy or darkness, close the shutters. They all seem to be made by the same company, three or four hinged metal panels on each side with tiny slits at the top and a simple latch in the middle to hold them closed. More modern buildings have shutters resembling little garage doors, often motorized.
Bars. It hard to walk two blocks without passing a bar. All the ones we’ve visited have multiple taps of beer, a nice wine selection and some type of food. They always use glassware that matches the brand and style of the drink. Prices are quite reasonable. There is no tipping expected as the servers are all paid a living wage.
Bakeries. There may be more bakeries than bars in France. These places are a sensory delight. I have no idea why French people are mostly slender – if I lived here, I’d look like the Michelin man in a month.
Public spaces. The main shopping districts and attractions in Paris and Reims are similar in that they are very clean, have a trash receptacle at every intersection, have clean public restrooms, and are mostly surrounded by parks. I was jet-lagged and awoke at 4:00 am. With nothing to do, I walked around town for a couple hours. The only other people out and about at that hour were a small army of workers sweeping the streets, collecting garbage, hosing down the sidewalks and replacing burnt-out streetlights. The French invest serious money in their commons.
Homelessness. I have yet to see a homeless person on the streets, or along the railroad tracks, in France. Surely French human beings have the same issues with drugs, mental illness, and simple bad luck as American human beings. The social safety net in France appears to be a lot stronger than in the USA.
Recycling. Like most Europeans, the French are big on recycling. You put your plastic bottles and paper in a special bag or bin and leave it out. However, bottles are deposited in huge plastic bins located on every third street corner. Downtown, the bottle bins are just a vertical pipe – a special truck extracts the bin, which is belowground, and dumps it. The big grocery stores have a place where you can drop off batteries, plastic bottlecaps, and various light bulbs.
Stop signs. They are red octagons that say “STOP”. I could swear that the other time I was in France, and in Quebec, the signs said “ARRÊT”. But now, it’s “STOP”.