On the Fields of France, Blood, Sweat and Beers
Sunday, September 16, 2007
In the world of rugby, it's said, everyone is family: the fans, the players, even the opposition.
So, standing outside the 80,000-seat Stade de France in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis -- a foot-long baguette stuffed with sausage in one hand and a half-liter of beer in the other -- I watched these unlikely kinfolk arrive last week for the opening of the sixth Rugby World Cup, which is unfolding in 10 venues across France (as well as stadiums in Scotland and Wales) through Oct. 20. For this Friday night match (France vs. Argentina), a tide of French blue, white and red spilled out of the Paris Metro station and onto the plazas around the sleek stadium. There was the ever-present face paint, the colored wigs, the flags worn as skirts and the grown men dressed as the Gallic cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix, one of whom was carrying a live (beer-drinking) rooster in a basket.
The most surprising thing about the gathering, however, was the way the other colors mixed right in: Argentina fans chanting in Spanish, Scotsmen in kilts, Irishmen in clover green. In spite of the beer being poured by the truckload, there was none of the rival-taunting you'd expect at a professional sporting event -- not a whiff of the violence that's become synonymous with soccer.
"If this were a football [soccer] match," explained my French rugby mentor, Loic, a fan for most of his 50-plus years, "it would be the Argentina supporters over there, the French here and the CRS [French Riot Police] in the middle looking to break up the fights."
Armand, a business school student and the youngest member of our group of four, added: "Everyone here is part of the family of rugby. In football, there is no family of football."
In France over the next five weeks, it will be hard to avoid the family of rugby. It's everywhere, from game cities -- Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and others -- to 43 giant screens in public spaces across the country; from public festivals and exhibits honoring participating nations to all-night parties in rugby bars and British-style pubs.
The Rugby World Cup, a once-every-four-years event, is a big deal -- in fact, the world's biggest sporting event this year, with combined television viewership for the 48 matches among 20 nations expected to reach 4 billion. And, yes -- though you probably haven't heard about it -- the United States is represented by its national team, the 15th-ranked USA Eagles.
In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was lit up to look like goal posts for the opening. The year-old museum of non-Western art, the Musee du Quai Branly, is taking up the rugby theme with a show called "The Melee of Cultures," examining sport and ritual in rugby-playing nations. Part of the program includes workshops in haka, the Maori war dance made famous by the top-ranked New Zealand All Blacks rugby team (the name is a reference to their all-black team uniforms).
The hype and marketing have touched commodities from bottled water and wine to men's toiletries and fashion. Chanel's fall lineup includes a limited-edition quilted-leather rugby ball selling for about $2,700. Nike has transformed a rugby bar and pub district in Paris's Saint-Germain-des-Pres, covering building facades with French team colors, life-size photos of players and billboard-size jerseys.
The mood here is summed up by the ads for the sportswear company Le Coq Sportif that ponder: "Rugby or not to be?"
The Sporting Faith
Rugby prides itself as a gutsy, savage sport played by gentlemen, absent the prima donnas and sociopaths of other professional field sports. It also prides itself on remaining close to the common man, uncorrupted (for the moment) by the exponentially greater commercialism seen in other sports.
Rugby, which developed in 19th-century England and spread to Britain's neighbors and former colonies, went professional only recently, in 1995. As a result, teams mix full-time rugby professionals with rugby-playing teachers, doctors and lawyers.