Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Velodrome - byebyebadman

Hugues had been a companion the last time I had seen a rugby match, and the circumstances could not have been more different. Sometime over the Christmas period two years ago we sat in near Siberic conditions at Edgeley Park in Stockport to watch an awful contest between Sale and Bath. The icy wind tore through us, making our teeth chatter in symphony. Who won? Who cares. A chilling experience, in every sense of the word.

I went to visit my sister Louise, Hugues and my new-born niece Emily this weekend in Pelisanne in the Provence region of France. As a surprise a trip to the Velodrome in Marseille had been arranged to watch the semi-finals of the French rugby championship between Stade Toulouse and Montferrand.

At this point I will admit to a little scepticism – not just because of the Stockport experience, but I have always found attending rugby matches, a passionless experience. I have seen Welsh internationals at the old Arms Park, where the pre-match singing and banter was exceptional, but the subsequent hammering dished out to the home team soon sucked the atmosphere dry. I also lived in New Zealand for a year and followed Wellington for a season, yet the abiding memory is one of row upon row of empty seats, in the country where love of rugby is said to be imprinted on the soul of the population. I even saw the All Blacks, thinking that surely was where the hysteria resided, but never has so little atmosphere been provided by so many for so few.

Sceptical as I may be I would never return a gift and this was also sisterly-approved man-time between Hugues and I. We parked by the old port in Marseille and made our way to the Joliette station on the Metro. As our train departed there were a few in the yellow and blue of Montferrand and a couple in the red and black of Toulouse around us. With each passing stop, they multiplied – ten, twenty, fifty, two hundred until each carriage was awash with colour. The rivalry was obvious, with both sets taunting each other, but there was a camaraderie as well; before we reached the final stop of Ste Marguerite Dromel the train erupted with a vibrant rendition of – appropriately enough – the Marseillaise.

As we stepped into the huge concrete salad bowl of a stadium Hugues turned to me and proudly announced ‘You are in the Stade Velodrome.’ I had mentioned several times down the years that I would like to go, but my visits had never coincided with an Olympique Marseille home game. As I caught my first glimpse of the pitch I remembered what had happened there. Francescoli, Boksic, Voller and even our own Chris Waddle had played regularly; Bergkamp scored his wonder goal against Argentina at one end; Platini, Tigana, Giresse et al defeated Portugal in 1984 in one of the epic internationals of all time.

That was football though, and today was about rugby. We were in the Montferrand section amidst a sea of yellow and blue flags. Interestingly, there were I would estimate a dozen different designs at least, flags from different seasons and generations, not the product of some supplied-on-the-day merchandise by the club and the sponsors. I found that heartening. The stadium itself was unimpressive, with cramped rows of dusty blue seats, litter everywhere and perimeter fencing to cage in human beings like cattle. Unfortunately for me a rather rotund French gentleman in the adjacent seat was sat partially on me – on the one occasion he chose to break wind, I could feel the aftershock through his thigh…

This turned out to be a minor discomfort as it became clear most of the match would be spent on our feet. The Toulouse fans made the initial racket, soon countered by a thunderous din from our (I have to be Montferrand; apart from the seating, they wear the blue and yellow of Warrington) end. Two songs in particular were on constant repetition – the cry of ‘TOU-LOU-SE!’ to the 3/3 beat of some deafening drums, counteracted by “Montferrand, allez, allez, allez!’ to the tune of Yellow Submarine. Hugues told me beforehand that these were the two best supported teams in France, and it was already clear that this would be unlike any rugby game I had ever been to.

Amidst the carnival, a game ensued. It had hitherto been a blustery, overcast day but as if to signal the match may begin the wind ceased and the clouds parted, illuminating the now packed stadium in glorious Mediterranean sunshine. The game was tense, tight and, predictably, bogged down in rugby’s red-tape of scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls. despite the early boon of the first try Montferrand looked pretty ineffective, and by half-time Toulouse had mercilessly kicked their way into a 15-7 lead.

There was a despondency in our end during the break, the general consensus being that Toulouse were too strong, the Montferrand backs bouncing off their defence like flies hitting a windshield. Hugues, who knows far more about rugby than me, saw no way back. Such a despairing situation is an opportune moment for a piece of off-the-cuff brilliance.

Early in the second-half Montferrand’s international winger, Aurelien Rougerie, picked the ball up deep in his own half and ran at Toulouse. He slipped past one tackle, then another, suddenly breaking clear of the red and black swarm. In full flight he gracefully rounded the full-back and touched the ball down despite a thumping tackle on the line. Amazing.

Often a set of supporters will, as one, detect a shift in momentum and ram the advantage home. The noise from the Montferrand fans became overwhelming and visibly, unquestionably lifted the players. A penalty sent them into the lead; a dropped goal increased the advantage. The fans in red and black were barely audible now. Toulouse were gone, and everyone in the stadium knew it.

The game ended farcically, the hooter sounding during a lull whilst a Toulouse player lay injured, then restarted several minutes later from a scrum which Montferrand kicked high into the crowd. At the whistle the Montferrand players went almost as crazy as the fans, doing a lap of honour and then perching themselves precariously on the fencing, singing in unison with their public, shaking their hands, wearing their scarves. Hugues and I stayed to soak up every last second.

We negotiated the Metro comfortably and returned to to the car. As we started to head back to Pelisanne, I asked Hugues to clarify something that had seemed a little strange – were the Montferrand players' celebrations not just a touch excessive, given that this was a semi-final?

“No,’ Hugues replied, ‘they are happy now because when they get to the final, they always lose.’

I laughed – I’m not sure Hugues understood why – and we pulled onto the motorway and left Marseilles and the Velodrome behind us.


file said...

very evocative, bbb, sounds like an exciting game and a great day out

I think I sat next to the same flatulant fat Frenchman on the metro in Paris once, what\'s French for sod\'s law? loi de terre?

let\'s not start pining for absythe fiends again, maybe Ebren will know or Guitou, where are you?

Zeph said...

Aha, I know this - it's called 'la loi de l'emmerdement maximal'. And I think they also recognise 'la loi de Murphy' but not 'la loi de sod'.

Despite my rugby ignorance I enjoyed reading this, bbb, another addition to the splendidly international flavour of Pseuds.

mimi said...

My heart sank when I saw the title - thought you'd beaten me to the line byebye, with a cycling piece! So glad not the case, and lovely stuff. Know so much what you mean about the old Arms Park. Nothing matches the atmosphere, or the voices, there. Weird what File says - I think I've sat next to that same flatulant Frenchman on a bus in Paris!

guitougoal said...

mimi, file,
such a small world, I cannot believe I was sitting next to you guys....I remember the sharp tongued lady with a bottle of vodka in her bag, and the guy in the metro in paris constantly picking his nose.

file said...


come on man, you looked hungry, I offered to share it

50K said...

Excellent piece BBB - I was there with you...

Only been to a couple of rugby games; whilst it was great to down a few beers with a mixture of types of people and supporters it didn't have the same raw intensity of a footie game.

IMHO rugby is almost better on TV because you can see the action or more to the point where the ball is - sitting in the stands watching a game at The Stoop you are often left wondering which pile of bodies are going to emerge with the ball.

Great game to play though and a good blog.

miimi said...

Gui: never the old lady with vodka in Paris - it was always the brandy. Here in Scotland, definitely the vodka these days even early in the mornings. Sad.

MotM said...

I loved it.

Sporting events in foreign countries are familiar but strange. I've seen ice hockey in pre-Gorby Moscow and football in Venice. But can't remember enough to evoke a tenth of the Badman's report!

guitougoal said...

never said the "old" lady, she was not old but hiding a bottle behind cookbooks in her bag and used to sneak nips from a flask she kept in her purse.That was probably your brandy-Perhaps it was a sign of the times.

mimi said...

Gui - was it you in the cafe, downing a quick nip of the hard stuff with your expresso? Dressed in workman's bleu and being oh so terribly French?
Mouth: I think you lie. where in Venice is there a football pitch? The only available space last time I was there was under reconstruction. I think you are telling a tale!

guitougoal said...

I think motm was referring to Venice California, or may be he watched a street game between italian kids from his window at the Danieli hotel.

file said...


strong stuff, what about S.S.C Venezia, don\'t they play just behind Sant Elena? Their stadium, Pierluigi Penzo, always looks like it\'s under construction but that\'s art luv!

MotM said...

There is a football ground in Venice, albeit some ditance from St Marks Square. It's in a part of the city that looks uncannily like er... Liverpool!

bluedaddy said...

Just cant get rugby as a spectator sport, and wouldnt even consider playing. But a nice retelling nonetheless. I like the line about rugby's red tape.

One bit of pedantry though - those flies probably wish they could 'bounce' in that tiny micro second before they disintegrate into snot on the windscreen.

byebyebadman said...

Thanks for the comments. I know enough about rugby to watch a game and understand it but would soon be caught out if I tried to explain any tactical nuances, so there isn't much detail on the match. More wanted to capture the experience of going and being amongst the Montferrand fans, which I hope came across.

Mimi - It'll be a long time before I write about cycling, I literally know nothing! Er, is Chris Boardman still riding?? Think you've got that base expertly covered.

50k - agree on rugby as a spectator sport, it will never be football. In France it seems to attract a different type of fan than in England though, and I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere on Saturday. Rugby is better on telly I think, whereas something like ice hockey is better live as it's easier to follow the puck I find.

Bluedaddy - the car in my analogy is stationary, or at least it is now you've flagged that up! :)

Right time to play football and, in the words of Maradona, vaccinate our opposition.

bluedaddy said...

Stationary and also inflatable BBB :o)

Also time to go and kick the old pig's bladder around.

DoctorShoot said...

great piece of evocative writing thank you.
Got to it late but enjoyed every line.

thank goodness culture is still allowed into a sports arena somewhere in the world...

Tweet it, digg it