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Austin Chronicle In the Box

By Raoul Hernandez

JULY 20, 1998:  When I was in fifth grade, I was the best goalie in my elementary school. Granted, not many of my peers knew soccer even had positions - let alone which one they might be best acclimated too (everyone, invariably, played forward) - but everyone knew the value of a good goalie, and I was king. Always chosen first or second, my teams almost always won. It's hard to say what made me such a good goalkeeper. Probably the blacktop. Despite the fact that an enormous, always freshly mown field of green lay not 30 yards beyond our field, and that we regularly played field hockey and football on it - circling its seemingly thousand acres during P.E., lap after lap like tiny Marines - soccer was played on the shiny, tar-covered surface by the basketball courts. God only knows what school officials were thinking; under that tar was a surface nearly as dangerous as Astroturf: concrete. In fact, it was here that I would later split my head open. Nevertheless, I reigned supreme on that merciless blacktop, so it was that much more debilitating when my soccer career came to a tragically premature end.

I'm still not sure why kids weren't allowed to play on that ugly, cracked surface with anything other than tennis shoes, but the day I came to school proudly sporting new hiking boots, my glorious days as a soccer legend were over. I tried playing in my socks for a couple days, my old sneakers long since thrown away and my parents parroting "You were the one that wanted hiking boots" over and over, but it was no use. I was finished. Later, in junior high, I took up soccer as an after-school sport, but by then puberty had divided my peer group into two camps - jocks and normal people - and I became a mild-mannered midfielder. By high school, I had forgotten all about soccer. Didn't think about it for 20 years, in fact. Not until the moment I switched on the television in my Paris hotel room in April.

Fifteen hours after landing on the European continent for the first time, a day which found me looking out from the tops of both the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe and later wandering around the Bois de Bologne and down the Champs Elysées, all I wanted to do was relax. Unwind. Click. On went the TV, and with it a flurry of fast-paced French. Uh ... ? Je ne comprend pas. Since there were no Catherine Deneuve movies on, I naturally settled on the two English-only channels: CNN and the sports channel. Now, admittedly, soccer wasn't my first choice, but it was better than hearing about Bavarian ploughshares.

I'm not exactly sure who was playing the World Cup Soccer preliminary I watched, but I'm almost certain it was the French National Team. Not that it matters, anyway; I was enthralled. The pace wasn't at frenetic as basketball, but movement was a constant - unlike televised baseball wherein there is no movement. It was obviously nowhere near as brutal as football, and yet it was a tremendously physical sport. And the passing, the finesse with which the players could get the ball from one end of the field to the other right on a dime. Unbelievable.

The next night, I watched another game, and by the time I reached the south of France five days later, I made sure I was back at the hotel by 8pm every night to watch whatever match was on. It was in Aix-en-Provence that I was saw the Brazilian team play, superheroes looking for another convert: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Leonardo, Bebeto, Dunga. Only then did I notice all the World Cup pre-hysteria brewing in Paris. When I left that fairy tale city a few days later, it never occurred to me that the World Cup would follow me home.

But there it was, and while games passed me by week after week while I was at work, not even the Rolling Stones at the Hole in Wall could have kept me from the finals on Sunday (well ... ). There they were, the only two teams I knew anything about, Brazil and France, and they were clearly the two best teams of the 32 that had begun the 1998 tournament. And despite the fact that Brazil never really got up a full head of steam, the game was still better than almost every Super Bowl I've seen since I was 10. More importantly, perhaps, like all great sports events, the outcome of this one seemed fated.

Played in a stadium built specifically for this World Cup, the Stade de France in St. Denis played host to a piece of French history that is even now being cemented in an entire nation's consciousness. The man expected to be France's hero, Zinedine Zidane ("Zizou"), a midfielder who wears the number of his country's greatest soccer hero, Michel Platini, became just that with his two headers for goal. Goalie Fabien Barthez, superlative defender Marcel Desilly, and forward Youri Djorkaeff all played with a heroism their countrymen will immortalize from now 'til the fall of Paris.

And when team captain Didier Deschamps held up that World Cup trophy for king and country - while 1.7 billion fans from around the world watched enthralled, he and the rest of his teammates ("Le Bleus") reached a pinnacle few professional athletes will ever achieve. He was best. Cue the "Marseillaise."

Andrew "Coach" Cotton will return with another installment of "Coach's Corner" next week. We promise.

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