World Cup Memories, 1998: The Aristeia of Lilian Thuram

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Good Evening:

Ah, yes–Aristeia, the word that makes you wonder, “The English language actually has a word for that?!” Aristeia has perhaps the most precise meaning of any word in English; it refers to, and only refers to, those passages in Homer’s The Iliad where one of the heroes suddenly becomes invincible and runs rampant over the enemy. For example, in one early passage, Diomedes suddenly becomes so freaking awesome he fights gods–and defeats Aphrodite (the goddess of love had no business wandering on a battlefield), wounds Ares, the Greek god of war, and fights Apollo to a draw.

Aristeia is an awesome word, and it deserves a place in modern usage.

Namely, sports in general and El Mundiale in particular.

San Francisco Civic Center during the 2014 World Cup Semifinal Game Between Argentine and the Netherlands. Note how well camouflaged the Dutch fans appear, cleverly donning the Alert Orange color of the San Francisco Giants.

San Francisco Civic Center during the 2014 World Cup Semifinal Game Between Argentine and the Netherlands. Note how well camouflaged the Dutch fans appear, cleverly donning the Alert Orange color of the San Francisco Giants. You would never know they were Dutch, would you?

During the 1998 World Cup, I temped at a retailer in downtown San Francisco which generously offered hour-long lunches to its temporary employees. So while I could not see the entire France-Croatia semifinal, I could choose to watch either the first or second half. I picked the second half and found a Pasta Pomodoro that broadcast the game.

Darn good choice. The second half, I mean.

In 1998, the nation of Croatia had reached the ripe young age of 7, the youngest nation ever to appear in the World Cup. Croatia had spent most of its seven years embroiled in a horrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, yet somehow managed to field a team with flamboyant red-and-white jerseys and major attitude. Many of these players had endured seven years of war; did anyone seriously think they might fear 11 foreigners in funny shorts? The Croatians hit the World Cup like a tsunami playing with a combination of recklessness on offense with recklessness on defense, swarming the ball like rabid hornets that had just consumed two too many double espressos. Such a style of play left most of their opponents gasping in the dust, and after a stunning 3-0 upset of Germany in the quarterfinals, began to look like genuine contenders to reach the Finals and even perhaps win.

In their way stood France, the host team and an early advocate of the 4-2-3-1 formation which has become rather trendy in 2014. Les Bleus boasted one of the finest back fours in WC history, so they could throw an extra pair of attackers forward knowing that nothing would get past that quartet. The French offense tallied 15 goals total in the tournament with a type of logical aggression; disciplined, well-developed steady pressure to pry open defenses and gain shots on goal.

France had the cool, but Croatia had the emotions. In the Germany game, Vlaovic scored the second goal and was almost immediately pulled from the game. Why? He could no longer play because he could not stop crying. Not only had he put his country into the semis, not only had he survived the war, but he had also survived brain surgery. Pretty good excuses for crying. So I knew that France-Croatia could become a magnificent contrast and clash of styles, potentially one of the best games of the entire Cup.

The second half began as I sat down to lunch. The first half had ended 0-0, as Croatia’s frantic offense could not dent a French defense that had not yet allowed a goal in the run of play (only a penalty kick vs. Denmark), while the Croatian defense overwhelmed a confused French attack. But immediately after the resumption of play, Croatia won a corner, swarmed into the box, and finally overwhelmed the defense to score a goal (the last Frances would concede in 1998; only two goals allowed in seven games!).

For exactly one minute, it looked like the hornets would win.

Now began The Aristeia of Lilian Thuram, a man who can look you in the eye and say that for 23 minutes, he was the finest soccer player in history.

Thuram played in that famous back four, and in his entire international career had scored the grand total of 0 goals. He was a defender, after all. But he had spotted a weakness in the swarming Croatian defense; since everyone went after the player with the ball, they left open spaces for opponents to infiltrate. When France launched an attack on the Croatian left wing, all of the defenders responded leaving a huge gap in the middle of the box. In seemingly one second, Thuram ran three-quarters the length of the field, collected a pass from the wing, and scored the first goal of his international career one minute after the French had conceded the lead.

And then ran back to his spot, again seemingly in only one second.

I swear it appeared that over the next twenty-three minutes he ran twice as fast as teammates and opponents alike, flying here, there, everywhere, defending as he had never defended before, attacking for the first time in life. Croatia might have played like a swarm of hornets; Lilian Thuram was an entire swarm all by himself.

But Croatia never gave up; why should they? It was only a tie game at that point, and the French were still only eleven foreigners in funny shorts. France didn’t stop attacking either, but they overextended themselves on one offensive. One of the hornets intercepted the ball and fired a blistering pass hoping to find an open teammate who had snuck into a dangerous position.

The ball whistled past Thuram’s ear. He stopped it, and controlled it, with one foot.

Think about that for a moment.

Theoretically, normal human beings can’t do that.

But when your aristeia arrives, you become superhuman. You can stop a ball whistling past your ear with one foot, controlling it the entire time, and then dribble the ball upfield to start another French attack. A few minutes later, Les Bleus tried another attack on the Croatian left wing. As always, the hornets swarmed after the ball. Thuram seemed to teleport himself from the defensive half of the field to almost the exact same spot where he had scored his first goal, calmly collected another great pass, and scored the second goal of his international career.

And then Lilian Thuram’s 23-minute aristeia ended. He went back on defense, stayed there, ran no faster than anyone else, and played the game exactly as he played before his aristeia began. Don’t get me wrong, his normal level of play was outstanding; this was an excellent defender who enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Italy’s Serie A; it’s just that whatever happened to him during those 23 minutes when he was the greatest soccer player in history suddenly disappeared. In fact, in 142 games for France, those two goals were the only two goals he ever scored.

And that’s an aristeia; for one brief, shocking, moment somebody becomes the best in the world at what he or she does, and nothing can stop them.

France held on desperately during an equally desperate counterattack by the team from a 7-year-old country, and the tense, sometimes brilliant game ended with France staggering off the field with a 2-1 victory. Croatia would win the third-place game, stinging the Netherlands 2-1, whilst France would dominate Brazil 3-0 in the final. Thuram played to his usual very high standards in the final, but no better, a very ordinary sort of excellence with no trace of the aristeia that had possessed him for 23 minutes in the second half of a single game.

Did Lilian Thuram know what he was doing during those 23 minutes, or did he “wake up” after they ended and asked a teammate who scored those two goals?

Vonn Scott Bair

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Ozomatli @ The Fillmore, 20 December 2014 & The Aristeia of Caipo. | The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

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