Le Foot - Village Football in France
Or how I nearly died in the name of sport...
This article was written 23 years ago and I've just found it again. It doesn't have anything to do with cycling, or with our holidays but I hope it'll make you smile and see one reason why we think this is such a special place...
When you first live in France one question occupies a lot of your time - are you accepted into the local community? Is it when the baker calls you ’tu’? when you’re asked to ring the church bell? When the local gossip links you to the royal family? No, it is when you are press ganged into the local football team. I speak from experience.
At school I was always last to be picked for any football team. The humiliation as you stand in the playground as one of the “captains” looks at the last two choices, then picks the fat spotty herbert who you know is completely useless at football in preference to you. Then the final insult, you get to play in goal and spend the next half hour desperately diving from side to side trying to avoid a ball travelling at just subsonic speed, and which after being soaked and layered with mud has the stopping power of a .44 Magnum at ten paces.
With this total lack of any talent, how come I find myself trying not to be sick after having sprinted 25 metres after a winger who went past me so fast I thought I was going backwards?
My first mistake was to go and watch a match. The football field was impressive. As in most French villages it was level and well shorn, with a clubhouse and bar. It flattered to deceive. I spent most of the game trying not to burst out laughing. Here at last was a team made up of players of my standard. There were about five people who could play, the rest were simply there as entertainment. Take Gustaff for example, a burly defender who’s reaction time was so slow that he always missed the ball, but who invariably crippled the attacker behind it. Opposing teams soon learnt to treat him as a kind of mobile black hole, to be avoided at all costs. As long as you were out of reach he was harmless, but woe betide anyone who came within scything range. There was no malice, just a lack of any sense of timing. During that fateful first game he was sent to the “sin-bin” twice. Then there was Gary. Gary played three games before I saw him touch the ball, but in that time he must have run fifty kilometres. He was far and away the fittest on the field, but all that energy was used up in a mad “headless chicken” careering around the field. His saving grace was that he did, by accident or design, manage to get in the way a lot, allowing his more talented teamates to regroup. Lastly the captain, Pierre. He held this dubious honour for two reasons, firstly he was the coolest on the field (but not on the ball), and secondly because his father ran the village bar and was chief fund-raiser for the team. He was the villages’ top scorer last year, with six goals. Unfortunately he is a central defender, and all were in his own net. His backpasses were lethal. On one memorable occasion I remember an attempted clearance over his own crossbar which our goalkeeper saved brilliantly, punching the ball out, only to see Pierre header it back past his outstretched fingers.
It was not this lack of talent that enticed me to play when Pierre asked - no it was the unashamed way in which they didn’t mind making a fool of themselves. Where in an English team you might win a torrent of abuse from your teamates after a mistake, here nobody really minded. The very fact that you’d turned up at all to play was good enough, and despite some real howlers I never saw anyone ridiculed. So the fear of making a prat of myself was reduced sufficiently for me to give it a go. The first training session was particularly arduous. The secret of the teams success (?) was the dulling of all pain by the simple expedient of going out on the Saturday night - games are always on Sunday afternoon, and getting blind drunk ’till 4 O’clock in the morning. Now the real physical training began as we drove to a discotheque to dance away ’till the sun rose. At this point the team broke up to stagger to bed, go to sleep in a gutter or go to the bar for a morning pick-me-up, the result being that many of the team began the game without having slept the night before, and with the most staggering hangovers. That the teams performance was a little ’inhibited’ by this regime would be stating the obvious. No-one on the team would header the ball unless in extremis, and the sight of the winger retching on the touch line was not uncommon! Thus the pride of Plelauff languished at the bottom of the division, a place where they were very happy and ideally suited.
It took 30 seconds of the first game to realize that no matter how bad the others were, I was worse. But I had one redeeming feature, at 6 foot tall and thirteen stone I was usually by far the biggest player on the field. The Bretons are a short race and so for ten minutes few attacks come near my position of left back (the traditional position for the incompetent). This of course didn’t last long, and soon attacks streamed past like water round a pebble. At this point I was substituted, and thankfully recovered on the touch line and watched the team utilizing their normal game plan of last ditch defence. But afterwards there were no recriminations, just a quick change and off to the bar for the traditional after match drink. Now I’m used whenever they’re short (excuse the pun) and continue to be a menacing figure at left back, frightening the opposing right wing until he learns the inevitable truth. The effort is worth it for the football dinner alone. They’re a great bunch, they enjoy their football, and with a little more coaching I’m sure well win the league next year.
A Small Favour
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