Saturday, June 24, 2006

Allons enfants de la Patrie...

The day started out with our typical morning meeting for the France vs Togo match. I had not expected to be here since my original plan was to sleep over in Nuremberg and take the train back arriving long after the meeting would have concluded. I had found a way, with the help of our drivers in Nuremberg, to rush me to the Munich Airport following the match where I could catch the 1 hour shuttle bringing me back to my colleagues in Cologne and on time to open the morning meeting.

Our group is getting good at being very much at home with the immense responsibility of putting on matches, with all the attendant risks, that go along with an elaborate process requiring many instant decisions. Following the England vs Sweden match, the featured match of our series, we were concerned that a little let down might occur. But, with the challenges of France and Togo, that wasn't going to happen. Not only did we have France, who were fighting for their World Cup life, but we were also planning for our first visit of our FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter to our venue.

At 1915 hours, Romer Asuna and I left the Hyatt Hotel with a caravan of vehicles to head to the Cologne/Bonn Airport to await the arrival of President Blatter. He traveled with four staff members and arrived about 15 minutes later than scheduled. I rode with him to the stadium in his Hyundai Centennial Black formal sedan. We chatted about the overall event; the excellent press coverage and the near perfect quality of the World Cup. Overall, the President was more relaxed than I have seen him lately and bouyed by the positive reception he would find in Cologne we arrived at the stadium at 2045 hours.

As we arrived on the elevator rising from the parking garage, the Lord Mayor of the City of Cologne, Fritz Schramma greeted the FIFA President with the City's good wishes and presented him with a momento of his visit. With only 15 minutes before the match, we decided to go directly to the seats. The President made himself comfortable accompanied by FIFA Vice President Issa Hayatou in the center of the Tribune. The President, while maintaining his neutrality, is Swiss and therefore had a more than passing interest in the results of match in Cologne (with Switzerland sharing the group with France and South Korea, still alive as the day began).

For France, tonight was do or die. The performances that carried them this far would no longer be good enough if there was to be a tomorrow for this valuable collection of players, yet to show themselves as a team.

In the stands, the French brain-trust of the Minister of Youth Affairs, Sports and Associative Life Jean-Fran├žois Lamour, the President of the French Football Federation Jean-Pierre Escalettes, and FIFA Executive Committee Member Michel Platini, contemplated the frustration of the first half of play as the remainder of the game began. It wasn't long before Patrick Vieira, celebrating his birthday, became the man of the match and the owner of the match's winning goal.

We retired to the VVIP lounge to unwind after the game. I convinced the President to use the big tables we had set up in the area reserved for the organizers and to abandon the private hospitality box which had been set aside for him which made a cocoon seem large. Blatter and Platini chatted as friends and well wishers stopped by to congratulate them on the success of their countrymen.

The President and his entourage sped off to the airport for their private jet destined for Templehof Airport and a good night's sleep in Berlin in the knowledge that Switzerland had finished first in their group and would be in Cologne to face the Ukraine on Monday.

FFF General Secretary Jacques Lambert, who as the Executive Director of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France, knew exactly what we were all facing as we concluded the last matches of the first round of games, joined us in the lounge. We spent the next half hour tasting the desserts and watching Platini graciously autographing tickets and programs, while posing for dozens of photos with fans who came by.

Finally, it was time to leave and as we exited the elevator at the parking garage level, one last photo opportunity of the night presented itself. A relieved Platini and Zidane, who would yet have another opportunity to play against Spain in Hanover on Tuesday, 27 June, were kind enough to pose for this picture. Thanks to you both and bonne chance avec l'Espagne.

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