I once had a FIFA official throw my match ticket at me. It hit me in the face, as it was meant to. That was in Incheon, South Korea, in 2002. France playing Denmark. You get used to it, the rudeness and the outright hostility of FIFA toward the print press.
Nothing of the kind has happened in Moncton. Women's World Cup officials and the local organizers have been very helpful. Queries answered promptly, with a "Thank you" and "Merci." They've been so nice I felt like giving them chocolates and flowers. Not accustomed to this kind of treatment, you see.
So, no, I'm not going to do a Cathal Kelly on Moncton. It is a bit low-key, here, mind you. Odd place to be anchored while covering a World Cup.
People like me, and Kelly, get a bit spoiled. As soon as a World Cup or Euro tournament is about to unfold, we're gone, off to a country and cities that throb with soccer passion. There's dazzling pageantry and exotic adventures galore. It's addictive. And then when a World Cup happens in Canada, you end up in Moncton. Where the Tim Hortons shuts at 6 p.m. It's not a soccer city, but I'll take it.
This time last year, it was a month in Rio for the World Cup. A nice apartment, shacked up with Kelly. The beach five minutes walk away.
Covering games at the Maracana Stadium followed by late-night, hair-raising cab rides (if you have hair to be raised, that is) with drivers shouting about the soccer match while keeping an eye on the soap opera on the tiny TV screen on the dashboard. Then "chops" – draft beers – at a Belmonte café surrounded by grinning, beautiful Brazilians and cheery, beery soccer supporters from all over the world. Everyone high on the thrill and frenzy of a soccer-crazy city.
The other evening here, near the Tims that shuts at 6 p.m., I saw a kid on a bicycle, wearing a Mexico shirt, cycling along the sidewalk. World Cup fever! He was the only figure on the street for blocks. And blocks.
After watching the kid cycle away, I came upon two middle-aged couples. From France. They strolled, dressed in winter jackets and wearing scarves knotted nattily, in the French manner. Peculiar sight, I thought. Later I checked the weather. Paris: high 22, low,13, and Moncton: high, 22 low, 15. Weird. World Cup craziness, right there.
I've been to Moncton before. Two years ago I spoke at the Frye Festival here. Northrop Frye, perhaps the foremost literary scholar and critic of the 20th century, was raised here. The festival honours him and scholarship.
Northrop Frye blighted my late adolescence. As an undergraduate, I struggled to understand his work, sitting in a library on early summer evenings while preparing for exams, when I could have been kicking and chasing a soccer ball on the green fields of University College, Dublin. Which is what I wanted to do. But from Frye I learned about archetypes in storytelling and the role of the critic. Important stuff.
While here at the Frye Festival I came upon the Tims that shuts at 6 p.m. At the time I thought the owners were leery of roving gangs of eminent scholars upsetting the equilibrium of Moncton by erupting in loud debate about Frye's interpretation of archetypes in the work of the poet William Blake over double-doubles.
And there is equilibrium here. Ahead of Tuesdays double-header of France/England and Mexico/Colombia, local World Cup organizers had encouraged people to gather downtown and take shuttle buses to the stadium. To their shock and dismay, about an hour before the first match, a lot of people showed up. Hundreds were late arriving and entering the stadium. More World Cup craziness right there.
After the double-header I went to a local imbibing emporium. (Being here, that seems like the correct phrase for a pub.) The proprietors are fans of my column and insisted I stop by. We talked the hell out of the two matches, England's dull play and the must-score, can-do enthusiasm of both Mexico and Colombia. Yes, here, in Moncton. That actually happened. It was crazy.
As I left the emporium I was handed a package. It was baked goods. One of my hosts had made butter tarts for me.
That hasn't happened at a World Cup before. A Moncton kind of World Cup fever. Never mind the Tims shutting at 6 p.m. Apparently there's a Starbucks that's open until 11 p.m. and you can run into an England player there and chat about the match and the tournament. It's still not truly a soccer city. But, the gift of fresh butter tarts and nothing thrown in my face by FIFA. I'll take Moncton.