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April 27, 2010

An alternative history of scoring

By David Hirshey and Roger Bennett
Special to

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event," copyright 2010 by David Hirshey and Roger Bennett. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books. Available in bookstores May 4.

There are few venues that can boast a higher concentration of testosterone than a convocation of some 736 soccer players from 32 different nations packed into a single country for one intense month of competition.

Click here to purchase the book.

When asked by a French newspaper what he would be taking to the tournament in 2002, Belgian defender Eric Deflandre replied, "My soccer boots and a blow-up doll because a month without a woman will be difficult."

Monitoring carnal activity -- only occasionally with women of the inflatable variety -- has characterized the World Cup ever since the first one in 1930, when Uruguay's starting goalkeeper, Andrés Mazali, was dropped shortly before the opening game after he was caught sneaking out of the hotel for a "conjugal visit." (In those days, teams were cruelly sequestered for two months.)

Sixty-four years later, German coach Berti Vogts was still instituting a ban on sex, forcing the wives of goalkeeper Bodo Illgner and midfielder Stefan Effenberg to book rooms in a hotel just down the street, then spiriting their husbands away from an official team function. When Vogts learned of the scheme, he was furious, igniting a national debate during which Bianca Illgner snorted that "this rule is something out of kindergarten. The whole football world is anti-women." The German public promptly proved her point, when 67 percent of those polled by a national newspaper agreed with Vogts.

When Sven-Göran Eriksson, quite the horndog in his own right, was managing England a few years ago, he avoided personal hypocrisy by allowing his players to spend a day with their wives and girlfriends after the team had qualified for the second round. This became known in the English tabloids as a "nookie pass."

Brazil, which plays the sexiest soccer in the world, struggles with the conjugal conundrum more than any other country. Coach Mario Zagallo issued a sex ban in 1998 and the team finished runnerup. Four years later, coach Luiz "Big Phil" Scolari banned women entirely from his team's training camp, claiming that "players who cannot control themselves when it comes to sex are not human. They are irrational beasts." Some players balked. "We all have active sex lives," said Brazilian forward Edílson, "and it's clear that fifty days without sex will not be easy." However, the team's superstar, Ronaldo, showed more self-restraint. "It's not that sex isn't good," he explained, "but the World Cup is every four years, and sex is not."

Scolari's abstinence tactics paid off as Brazil won the World Cup, but his successor, Carlos Alberto Parreira, took a different position: "I don't think that sex one day before the game will have any harm on the player," he announced. "Just sex, no problem. The problem is, they don't eat, they don't sleep, they smoke and they drink. That is the problem. Sex? No, sex is always very good -- always welcome." It's impossible to prove any cause and effect, but at the 2006 World Cup Brazil was knocked out in the quarterfinals by France. Much of the blame for the loss fell on the libido of their latest demigod, Ronaldinho, who was outed by his then-girlfriend for their late-night romps.

In the World Cup's early days, the sex police weren't so busy. The sport's history is littered with tales of philandering that didn't interfere with performance on the field. The great Italian striker of the 1930s, Giuseppe Meazza, was known to go straight from the local brothel to a game, and Garrincha, Brazil's bowlegged hero of the '50s and '60s, spent just as much time fathering illegitimate children with multiple consorts as he did destroying opponents from the wing and winning World Cup MVP honors in 1962.

But the game has changed dramatically since the louche days of the '60s and '70s. In the modern era, with millions of dollars spent on keeping players at peak levels of fitness, the only happy endings coaches care about are on the field. Still, it would be wise to heed the warning of Cameroon coach Valeri Nepomniachi who, in announcing that he was giving his squad a day off with their wives before its 1990 quarterfinal match with England, reasoned, "If a man is in discomfort for long it can affect his work."