Meet Stéphane Guivarc'h, the World Cup champ who's now a pool guy
CONCARNEAU, France -- The port bar regulars are more interested in their cold glasses of Pelforth beer and their bets on the second race at Chartres than the former soccer hero who comes in for a coffee. Stéphane Guivarc'h loves that. He grew up here, and he left home to start his career at 14, learning along the way the high of winning the 1998 World Cup, and the low of being named by a newspaper the worst striker in the history of the English Premier League.
When all that ended, and he faded from the public's imagination, he returned home to the sea. His father taught him to fish here, to love the smell of the ocean and the flat-shelled oysters. Outside, a misty rain falls. Brittany weather. Sea gulls circle the town square, where a store sells the blue- and white-striped sailor shirts.
"I can breathe here," he says, smiling. "I'm a small-town kind of guy."
He lives in the next village over, a few miles down the coast. Almost 46, he looks like he could still play. Every morning, he goes into Le Maryland for his morning coffee. He reads the paper and talks to friends, then heads to work. For a company owned by his best friend from childhood, he sells swimming pools, 20 to 25 a year. His rough hands and weathered nails belong to a working man. Although he's well off, his career didn't bring him the kind of cartoonish wealth some of his 1998 teammates enjoy. He earned his way onto the squad after leading the top French league in scoring twice, a level of success he never managed to repeat again; after signing with Newcastle, he lasted just four games. He spent the last year of his career at a small club near Concarneau because his mother had gotten sick and he wanted to be closer to her.
As a striker in the World Cup, people expected great things from him, and if he's known at all, it's for not scoring a single goal in the 1998 title run. He's perhaps the least well-known member of that team, the guy newspaper stories have called the guy most likely to be forgotten in a pub quiz. That's how he lives in that world, the one hosting the European Championship this month in France, where all players get discussed and debated like cattle at an auction.
During a tournament as big as the Euros, it's instructive to in essence travel ahead in time, to see what awaits the men on our television sets. At some point, that life ends. Of course, like all his former teammates, Guivarc'h is not completely separated from the past, going on television sometimes to offer commentary and, during the Euros, going to small-town gatherings to tell stories: Fortune 500 companies might get Zinedine Zidane to entertain clients this month, but the equivalent of the Guingamp Rotary Club gets a swimming pool salesman.
Old scars still bother him more than he lets on; after the British paper called him the worst ever, he lashed out in response and made excuses for his poor play. But he likes that old world sometimes, especially on those nights when he goes into a restaurant in Paris and a fan spots him -- one of the beloved men of France Quatre-vingt-dix-huit. It doesn't happen all the time but enough to make him feel good. "If someone recognizes me," he says, "I have a free evening. I don't have to put my hand in my pocket."
The world champions still see each other from time to time. Many of them take trips together -- a French fan who randomly happened upon this group of aging tourists might explode -- to places like Morocco and Brazil. Sometimes they play in little tournaments on small fields -- they can't handle a real pitch anymore, Guivarc'h says, laughing -- and they've got a cruise planned for next year. They've all worked to find something after the glory of '98, riding down the Champs Elysees in an open bus, waving at a million people, as close to a conquering general as our modern world is capable of making a man feel. A few of his friends are still chasing that ghost. "Some people are looking for cameras," Guivarc'h says, "and they don't feel they exist without cameras."
He goes to watch his oldest daughter play basketball on Saturdays, and supports his middle daughter as she looks for the thing that interests her most, and his youngest girl, 8 years old, started playing soccer this year. After practice sometimes, he shows her a few tricks with the ball.
"I am very proud," he says.
None of them were alive in 1998.
They like to flip through the scrapbooks of articles his dad made, seeing when Guivarc'h used to be a star. Now he's just Dad, a pool salesman and a guy who goes fishing nearly every Sunday with his best friend since he was a boy. They take a Zodiac, heading out to sea around 6:30 in the morning. Like their fathers and grandfathers, they troll for mackerel and pollock, running out a line with four or five hooks, hauling it in by hand. They don't allow phones on the boat. "When you're on water, you're on water," he says. "You don't think about anything else."
Around 11, they go back to shore and pick up the women and children. Off the coast, an archipelago of nine islands called Glenan sits in sky-blue shallows. Everyone relaxes on the sand, laughing and telling stories. Guivarc'h cleans and grills the fish. It's as close to perfect as he can imagine, and he once had a million people cheer him in the streets of Paris. Simple grilled fish, some potatoes and a salad. They open a bottle of rose, maybe two or three.
"We don't drink water on Sundays," he says, the happiness lighting up his face.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.