The match-day experience … in France

Originally published in 2004

Ever fancied going to a football match abroad somewhere ? Worried about how to plan the trip, whether you’ll get any grief for being English, or how much the tickets might be ? Forget about it ! It’s easy … sit back, relax and let your intrepid reporter do all the leg-work … and eat all the pies.
Paul Ridge recently made just such a trek on a trip to France in August and he even took his family along as well …

Being a Leeds fan in exile, I try to make the most of living on the south coast: the weather’s nicer, the people are friendly and speak normal English, and there’s enough trees in the area to keep a Yorkshire terrier happy. The downside is I hardly ever get to see my team. I can catch them annually at St.Marys of course (though we always did better at The Dell, funnily enough) and now I can even venture to Fratton to get my footie fix, as well as taking in the odd London trip (Spurs and Fulham are fine, but I don’t bother with Arsenal or Chelsea) but it all means I’ve become something of a football nomad.

Although Leeds are my one true love (and I hope they survive long enough that we can grow old together) I will now go anywhere and everywhere to watch a live game, and not just support Leeds United. In the last few years I’ve been to Celtic, Man Utd, Leicester, Everton (three times), Villa, QPR, Newcastle, Pompey, Millwall and Nottingham Forest, as well as taking time out on holidays to check out stadiums in different parts of the world. These include the San Siro in Milan, the Nashville Arena in Tennessee (for an ice hockey game one day and the World Rodeo Championships two days later) and the Zimbabwe national stadium just outside Harare. So, basically, I’m a football tart: any time, any place, anywhere …


Which brings us nicely to Lille, northern France, in August of this year. While taking a well-earned holiday with my French girlfriend, Cathie, and her daughter Vicky, we went to check out Lille Olympique Sporting Club, or LOSC as they’re known locally. We were looking around the ground and the club shop when it suddenly dawned on me that we would still be in town at the weekend and maybe … just maybe … we could catch a match if they were playing at home at the weekend. So, using my schoolboy French to the best of my ability, I asked about fixtures and got told that they would be hosting the one and only Paris Saint Germain (PSG) at 5.15pm on the very next Saturday. My face lit up as I looked longingly at my woman … no, no it was too hot for any of that: I wanted to go to the football and wondered if she would come along too ? Having been dragged to a few games on English soil and ending up really enjoying them, she quickly agreed and asked her daughter if she fancied it too … well, who wouldn’t want to go to their first ever game in their own country ?
So: I was going to my first match in a different country (Scotland doesn’t count!) even if I was with a couple of Arsenal fans. Beggars can’t be choosers.
I consoled myself with the fact that I’d bought Vicky a Leeds strip for her birthday that week and figured she’d probably wear it just to please me …

So what about tickets ? Having hatched this devious plan to subvert my nearest and dearest into becoming fans of two completely different clubs (never gonna work for Leeds but I was still hopeful about my newly adopted French team) I now had to find out how much this madcap scheme would cost me: an arm and a leg if it was back home, that’s for sure. But, like most things on the continent, I was pleasantly surprised to find that good seats would cost a paltry sixteen Euros for adults and half that for a kid: so that’s £25 to you and me for all three of us. Given that ONE ticket to a Saints game would set me back £28, I thought that was a bargain. And the stadium was beautiful too – just an old-fashioned English-style ground set alongside the ancient gardens surrounding the citadel of Lille, which housed the local army: no crowd trouble here then, I thought to myself.

It truly was a picturesque setting as we ambled up to the ground through the meandering paths and the myriad trees around the south side of the stadium. If we’d driven, there was parking for about three thousand cars in a massive car park adjoining the ground itself, but we got dropped off and decided to take the scenic route instead. The usual throng was gathering with a mass of colours, mostly red and blue, LOSC’s official kit being vivid shades of scarlet and French blue, but we noticed that there were many more families going together, with lots of women and children and absolutely none of the boorish, drunken behaviour seen at many English matches. Now, we all know that the French are far more sophisticated in their socialising generally and their drinking specifically than their neighbours across the Channel, but this was a real eye-opener for me. Apart from the prohibitive cost of the whole thing, I’d be wary of taking Cathie and especially Vicky to any match in England, whatever the division. But, when you think about it, with the cost being so low, I guess it’s easier to do over there and the convivial atmosphere made it a real joy to take kids along. Vicky was wide-eyed and excited as we set about entering the stadium to find our seats. One thing that was particularly hot, apart from the weather, was the security aspect: even before we entered the ground itself, all our bags were searched and even Vicky was given the once over by a lady-steward (“stewardess” just doesn’t sound right, does it ?) and all bottles had to be surrendered at the point of entry … or so we thought. It turned out we could take our Evian in if we simply removed the lids, presumably to lessen the chance of them being used as missiles by the hardcore English hooligan that was … er … me !

Once inside, the ground was much like any other, though there was a lot more room to move around. The plastic seats only had the base part and were set upon traditional terracing so it felt a lot less constrictive than an English ground. Seating covered every section of it, though – as in England – small pockets of fans still wanted to stand and were allowed to do so without any fuss. As it turned out, we were next to one of the loudest sections of the home support, who immediately unfurled one of those huge club flags and started passing up the crowd over their heads to show their allegiance: what a sight ! And what a noise ! There were drummers in every corner of the ground and they continued to bang out the songs all through the match. In the same way that the two ends of the new St.Marys sing songs at each other, the fans set about trying to outdo other sections of the stadium, but they actually took it one stage further by each singing a line alternately from whichever song was being sung at the time. That must have been intimidating for the away team and their hapless fans, stuck away in one corner at the far end from us … again, just like in England.

I’ve read a lot about the French game being a poor relation to the hustle and bustle of the English Premier League. In general, it is considered inferior to our own game, as well as the Italian, Spanish and German leagues. Personally, I would say that technically the players are far better than our own, but in terms of passion shown and the overall pace of the game, they were a little lacking for my own tastes. Being a Leeds fan, I expected at least a bit of bottle to be shown by the visiting team, PSG, especially when they went 0-1 down on the stroke of half-time. On paper, they had a much better team than LOSC, with their new signing Pauleta up front (top scorer in Europe not so long ago) as well as a handful of Brazilians and the veteran Germany defender Jorg Heinze sweeping up at the back. But luckily for Lille, the game isn’t played on paper: on grass, LOSC were much the better side with some nice touches and a better team ethic winning the match. I’ll forgive PSG for it being only the second match of the season and a searing 32′ even at 6pm, but if it had been Leeds I wouldn’t have been so accommodating, I’m sure. 

Looking around the ground, we really were surprised just how many families were there, as well as a large number of couples, with the women singing just as passionately as the men. Next to us a family had made the trip across from Brittany. “Not bad” I said to them in French, “but we come from Britain itself.” The father laughed politely, though I’m not sure he understood, before lighting up a cigarette and turning away, intent on the game. After that, we exchanged the odd phrase and Gallic shrug of the shoulders through the game, but given that he spoke no English and I could barely understand his thick Breton accent, I thought we did pretty well in the communication stakes. 

I read an article a while back about a “mad guy” who makes the trip to Lens (LOSC’s local rivals, based twenty miles away) every other weekend to see them play as he only lives in Kent and decided to get a season ticket. Given that it only cost him £78 and that food and travel to and from the game is so cheap, I can see why he’d do it and don’t consider him mad at all. When you look at the prices of season tickets in England, I think it’s a sound investment. I envied him and decided to come back as soon as I could. On the whole, the local folk were pretty friendly if also a little surprised when I explained I was English. One fan, outside the ground as we were leaving, was wearing a Celtic shirt and I decided to chance my arm by initiating a conversation. I needn’t have worried: it turned out he was Irish-French, born in Lille but having spent ten years in Dublin. Consequently his accent was the most bizarre mix I’d ever heard … one moment taking with that familiar soft, southern Irish burr to me in English, before switch to fluent French to check with his friend the capacity of LOSC’s ground. I’d guessed about 25,000 but his friend (also in Celtic colours) assured us both it was 22,000. I told him I’d been to the Celtic v Stuttgart game at Parkhead in their glorious run to the UEFA Cup Final and he was envious, having now settled back in France for good. We agreed it would’ve been easier to get to Glasgow from Dublin than Lille. 

Having been back in England for a week now, I witnessed the start of the new Premiership season but couldn’t help sneak a peak at the LOSC result on Saturday night: the won 3-0 away at Toulouse and I noticed that they were sitting top of the table, having played three, won three, scored five and conceded none. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship, I thought smugly to myself … just imagine if Saints ever got them in the UEFA Cup … gosh, who would I support then ? 
I wonder …



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