This piece is excerpted from Aleksandar Hemon’s The Matters of Life, Death, and More: Writing on Soccer, now available from FSG Originals.
Throughout the 1982 World Cup in Spain, I was in love, which is to say that I suffered through a painful conflict of most intense interests. I was a Sarajevo high school senior and an unwilling virgin. My girlfriend—let her be known as Renata—had just graduated and was studying for a med school entrance exam. Under the pretense of helping her prepare for it, I spent a lot of time at her home, which she shared with her father and schizophrenic brother. In her room, I read mock test questions to her, mainly biology-related, until, slowly, hotly, we moved from the theory of adolescent biology to its practical questions: Where does the heat in our heads come from? What should we do with these hormone-driven, tinder-box bodies? The biology textbook tossed aside we practically dared her father or brother to barge in and catch us locked in a feral clench, conducting biological research by petting each other very, very heavily. Sometimes the room was so infested with arousal that we had to open the windows and let it out to affect the innocent birds and bees of Sarajevo.
If you are reading this at all, you know that sex and soccer do not mix well. In the evenings, when her father and brother would go for long walks, we would be left alone—which allowed for all kinds of fantastic possibilities—but the World Cup games were on, so I had to find balance between my soccer obsession and our biology. I regret to say that because of the conflicting circumstances I missed some games; some of them I perceived with just a half of my brain, as the other half was suspended for the sake of our biological research. But for the semifinals, I mustered enough gumption and hormone control to forgo the heavy petting and risk indefinite deflowerment deferral: I demanded to watch the game in peace—no biological experiments, please. Renata put away her books and pencils and we lay on the living room sofa facing the TV. Her father and brother were away, France vs. West Germany was on, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Though my team of contrarian choice in 1982 was Italy, I was rooting for France in that particular match. Although the French were laughably unimpressive in Argentina in 1978, I liked the 1982 team: after a slow start in Round 1 (losing to England, tying with Czechoslovakia, finally beating Kuwait) Les Bleues picked it up in Round 2 group stage. They beat Austria with Genghini’s superb free-kick, while Northern Ireland was disposed of mercilessly: Platini danced past the entire Northern Ireland defense to pass the ball to the puny Giresse, who scored the first goal; Rocheteau raced with the ball all the way from the half line to beat Pat Jenkins at the near post; the French midfield ran the Northern Irish ragged and both Giresse and Rocheteau scored again. It was an impressive performance, but they did it all with a certain, charming ease, which invoked for me the relaxed atmosphere of Parisian cafés, as yet unexperienced. When I recall Platini from 1982, I see a full head of uncombed Rimbaudian hair, indecently short shorts and a big smile—a copain having loads of fun.
I could easily imagine Platini or Tigana growing up on a Parisian street, kicking a deflated ball with other boys, rehearsing the magic they’d dazzle the world with much later. The ease and flair they exhibited while playing was different only in degree but not in kind from the soccer I played with my mates—among the French, much as among the Brazilians, the joy of playing bespoke the purity rooted in the street game. But no one could ever accuse Germans of enjoying playing. In fact, no one could ever imagine them even playing on the street—those men were always at work, and enjoyment would run counter to their work ethic. On the parking lots where I came up playing soccer, a “German” was a boy who brought you down on the concrete, someone who would run a lot because he could do shit with the ball. The victory in soccer, I’d grown up believing, should never be a consequence of hard work—rather, it should be a kind of epiphany, an act of supreme magic, unlearnable and inexplicable. That was why I had always hated German soccer: the mechanical discipline and the maddening, unmagical ability never to give up made the classical German soccer philosophy my main ideological enemy. I’ve changed my mind since, but in 1982, I saw the semifinals as a great battle in the philosophical war between work and magic, between the (stereotypical) Teutonic rationality and (equally stereotypical) Gallic passion. It was set up to be a great game.
And a great game it was, but I had trouble seeing it, for Renata, liberated from the shackles of biological theory, was all over me—despite her promise to let me watch—and I was, I confess, helplessly responsive. But I peeked over her shoulder as she was working on a collection of flaming hickeys; I listened closely to the exhilarated game commentators as she alternately whispered sweet nothings and licked my ear; I leapt out of concupiscent holds to see the goals (Littbarski, Platini from a penalty) repeatedly replayed; I sped to take us to the culmination at half time but couldn’t made it before the second-half whistle. In the sixtieth minute, my erection was deflated when the brutal goalie with the Teutonic name Harald Schumacher mauled the gentle Patrick Battiston, sending him to the hospital without so much as a foul or a yellow card. It seemed that Schumacher’s hard work was being rewarded by the Dutch referee, and the familiar sense of philosophical injustice overwhelmed me. When the regulation time ended in a 1–1 tie and the game went into overtime, I accepted the possibility of a breakup and turned exclusively to the French-German battle.
At this point, Renata and her body vanish in my memory. I suppose she worked too hard, and could not match the excitement and magic Platini and his copains provided. I am fully aware this is an awful thing to say, and hereby admit that any and every man who spurns a woman’s love for a soccer game is an idiot and nothing but an idiot.
But what a game it was. In overtime, the French played beautifully in the first half, and scored two quick goals: a gorgeous volley by Trésor; Giresse’s precise shot from the edge of the box. They looked set for the finals when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, previously injured, came in as a superhuman sub and scored a goal with his first shot. Once again I knew that, sadly, hard work would pay off, the Germans would come back from behind, and rationality and discipline would overcome magic and passion. And so it did happen: Fischer tied the game with an overhead kick to Hrubesch’s header; it went to penalties; Bossis missed his penalty in sudden death and the French buckled; Renata was pissed. I was philosophically fucked and biologically unfucked. I would not lose my virginity for another few months.
Those long months included a few weeks in Africa. My father worked in Kinshasa, Zaire, where we (my mother, sister, myself) went to visit him. My remorse at sacrificing those beautiful summer evenings in Renata’s arms for soccer was alleviated by daily trips to the French Cultural Center, which I stumbled upon when roaming the city. There, the French World Cup games were replayed, most often the one against West Germany. In a dark, air-conditioned room, I relived the great match; I cried foul; I bemoaned all the wasted chances; I thought of Renata, her body and biology; I became part-time French. Nothing feeds patriotism like the sense of victimhood, so I rose to my feet to shout abuse at the Germans; with my fellow Frenchmen I recalled 1940 and any number of unintelligible injustices. I couldn’t speak a word of French, but there was a mass of Frenchness in the smoky room and I merged right in. I don’t remember any individual faces, but somehow, strangely, I imagine Giresse being there with us, hollering at the screen. It was from him (or whoever it really was) that I learned my first words of French: “Merde! Putain!”
It was because of this experience that I rooted for France in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. They certainly were among the favorites: the team that had beautifully coalesced around the genius of Platini had become the 1984 European Champion. Platini was on top of his game: the European Player of the Year for three years running; the World Player of the Year in ’84 and ’85. Hence, the French sailed through the group stage; they beat Italy, the reigning champions, handily, and reached the quarterfinals to play Brazil, the perennial favorite, which hadn’t conceded a goal in the previous four games. This time around, there were (un)fortunately no girlfriends to distract me.
Pelé famously said that the 1986 quarterfinals in Guadalajara between Brazil and France was the greatest game he had ever seen. It is certainly one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. Sócrates, the lanky, chain-smoking genius, had one of the best matches of his career, orchestrating superbly the Brazilian midfield, visibly enjoying every minute of it. Giresse and Platini, mes copains, were ruling the French game. Passes flowed, the ball moved swiftly from box to box, shots bounced off posts, a goal was in the air at any given moment. Only two were scored, however, even after overtime: the score line was 1–1. It went to penalties again and the shadow of the disaster with West Germany loomed darkly over Les Bleus—and it got ever so darker when Platini punted the ball well over the bar. But all the other Frenchmen scored, while the Brazilians missed two kicks (Sócrates, Julio César.) The French were through to the semifinals, where they were to meet West Germany again.
The game was as built up in my head as can be—it was 1940 and 1982 all over again—and my dormant French patriotism stirred awake. Alas, in a typically clinical manner, the Huns disposed of the Gauls: the French goalie Bats fumbled Brehme’s shot early on, whereupon the Germans defended with infuriatingly predictable discipline and scored another goal in injury time. The French had their chances too, but missed them all: Bossis (who’d missed his penalty in Spain) failed to score—twice—facing an open goal. It was the last WC game of a great generation of French players, Platini the greatest of them all. One shudders with unattained pleasure at the thought of the finals in which Argentina’s Maradona, playing in Mexico like nobody else before or after him, would’ve faced Michel Platini, instead of a hardworking German called Wolfgang Rolff.
The French missed the next two World Cups, both times losing their crucial qualifying games: in qualifications for the 1990 WC they failed to beat the lowly Cyprus, and lost to Yugoslavia and Scotland; they did not reach the USA in 1994, because they shockingly lost at home to Israel and Bulgaria. But a whole new generation came of age, and much different from Platini’s, and in 1998 they came back with revenge. Unlike the home-based players of the ’82 and ’86 teams, the French of 1998 consisted of players (Zidane, Henry, Deschamps, etc.) who competed in prime European clubs. After passing through the group stage half-asleep, they beat sturdy Paraguay with a golden goal; withstood the challenge of Italy to beat them on penalties; brushed aside feisty Croatia, and crushed Brazil in the Finals, thereby becoming only the seventh nation to win the World Cup.
A great deal was made of the diversity of the 1998 team reflecting a France that provided nightmares for the right-wing patriots and racists—French-born players united with those born in former colonies; white and black Frenchmen played as one. They never faltered under pressure, doubtless spurred on by the support of the entire soccer-mad country, which recognized an exciting future for the Republic and the national soccer team that stood for it.
They did become European Champions in 2000, in an amazing finals against Italy, but in the 2002 World Cup, they lost the opening game to Senegal, all of whose starters played in the French league. They embarrassingly never got out of the group stage, managing not to score a single goal. This was largely the same team that had impressed in 1998 and Euro 2000—the downfall was most ignominious, inexplicable, and undeserving of the great tradition. I was married then, progressing toward divorce; I watched every lousy game alone.
It’s hard to predict what France might do in Germany in 2006. They qualified with no problems and there is no shortage of excellent, experienced players: Henry, Viera, Trezeguet, Makélélé etc. But all of them will have had a long, competitive season behind them, by virtue of playing for the best European clubs. The good news is that they cannot meet Germany before the semifinal. If they do, the match will be an occasion for remembering all the chances we—France and I—have missed together.
As it happened, France narrowly avoided humiliation in 2006 by reaching the finals, where they lost to Italy. Before the WC started I’d placed my bets on both Italy (10:1 odds) and France (14:1) to win it. Though I did all right, it’s fair to say that Zidane’s infamous head-butt cost me a substantial amount of money.
This piece is excerpted from Aleksandar Hemon’s The Matters of Life, Death, and More: Writing on Soccer, and was previously published in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup.
Previously: Aleksandar Hemon on Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants…
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man,The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles, and The Book of My Lives. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award, and a 2012 USA Fellowship, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives and plays in Chicago.