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Tour de France
Steve Rushin
July 13, 1998
Over seven days and 2,000 miles, encountering besotted English fans and bedazzling Brazilian players, our correspondent unraveled the mysteries of the World Cup—and even learned how to nightclub excessively
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July 13, 1998

Tour De France

Over seven days and 2,000 miles, encountering besotted English fans and bedazzling Brazilian players, our correspondent unraveled the mysteries of the World Cup—and even learned how to nightclub excessively

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SUNDAY, JUNE 28: New York to Paris

There are but two psychological states available to the trans-Atlantic air traveler—torpor and terror—and the same might be said of spectators at the World Cup, that quadrennial showcase of scoreless soccer enlivened only by the clear-air turbulence of hooliganism. So why combine these activities? Why fly to France for a week's worth of "football," when the only touchdown on offer is an uneven landing in Paris?

Because something Wilbur Wright said of flight seems also to apply to soccer: "If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds. But if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."

What do I hope to learn in the next six days? Nothing less than the secrets of Kanu and Cafu and Camus. Nwankwo Kanu—not so much a name as an unplayable Scrabble rack—had a hole in his aorta 19 months ago but recovered to compete for Nigeria in the World Cup. The mononymous Cafu is a defender for Brazil, the world's most stylish and self-absorbed collection of athletes, a team aptly described by one Brazilian newspaper as a "cauldron of vanities." And Albert Camus was a French philosopher who once said, "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football."

In these men you have the World Cup, to say nothing of the world itself. It is all there: élan, ego and French pretentiousness. Morality obligations and a stout heart. As a sportswriter. I know little of morality and even less of obligations. So there is this, too: One week at the World Cup might—just might—make me a better human being.

MONDAY, JUNE 29: Paris

Eleven p.m. on the Champs-Elysées and Yugoslav players are getting hammered. On television, that is, during a 2-1 second-round loss to the Netherlands, but is it really any wonder? "The Yugoslavian players are out until two or three every morning," U.S. coach Steve Sampson had said earlier in the World Cup. "The security officers [for the U.S. team] talk to the security officers for other teams. We have been informed that the Yugoslavian security officers are exhausted from staying up until two or three every morning watching Yugoslavian players."

"Excessive nightclubbing"—the offense for which South Africa reportedly dismissed a midfielder from its squad—is the game within the game at the World Cup. And so officially licensed World Cup condoms sell in Champs-Elysées souvenir shops, and Bulgarian superstar Hristo Stoichkov had nightclubbed so excessively that he couldn't get out of bed for one team meeting, and most English supporters would benefit from receiving Mickey Mantle's original liver. If the World Cup were an actual cup, it would be made of half a coconut and come with an umbrella. At a sidewalk newsstand on the Champs-Elysées, I purchase a British newspaper, The Independent, and read the bold, above-the-fold headline: ENGLISH FANS WILL BE ABLE TO DRINK ALL DAY. Tomorrow bars will remain open from 8:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. in St. Etienne, where England is to play Argentina at 9 o'clock in the evening.

Drunken English fans, of course, rioted on match days in Marseilles and Lens. And given the history of England and Argentina—Maradona's notorious "hand of God" goal beat England in the '86 World Cup, four years after the Falklands War—the failure of French officials to ban alcohol in St. Etienne is seen as curious at best, particularly when most English fans in the town of 200,000 will be without match tickets. "There will be a high level of frustration which will [leave] people looking for drink to find some other outlet for their energies," Tom Pendry, a member of the British Parliament, warns in The Indepedent. "This is a cocktail for disaster."

Yet reading this last line at midnight in Harry's Bar, at large in the land of the World Cup, I have but one thought, and it is a Homer Simpsonian one at that: Mmmmmm...cocktail.

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