Football is rife in France. Every village, no matter how petit, has a pitch equipped with floodlights and somewhere to buy a (very drinkable) coffee (bring your own milk) or a beer.
I have two sons who live for the beautiful game and need to train twice a week, come rain or shine. Corme Royal has two pitches. Impressive. But there are not enough players in most age categories to form a local team. This means (you guessed it!) joining another club in a neighbouring village.
Last weekend (no rain - many thanks to the Management), my eldest played against Marennes.
The players jog onto the pitch in formation, lining up then passing along to shake hands. The referee has sorted out a startling selection of gear, this time in an ecstasy of red, turquoise and baby blue. The players take their positions. The goalkeepers raise a hand. The scene is set. The whistle blows.
Dressed in layers, I shun the stands and observe the action from behind the barrier, joined by other hardcore football aficionados. Today, there is a restaurateur, recently retired, a local Papi (grandfather), and his much younger wife out for an afternoon constitutional. We converse, tentatively at first.
Apparently, Federer (le Suisse) has just beaten their very own Gasquet in the final of the Davis Cup. Now, here they were, in the company of an enemy supporter, with their team already losing 1:0 on its home ground. Should I be afraid? On the contrary, we are civilised, jovial, even philosophical. I dare to cheer (je m’excuse!) when St. Georges scores against Marennes.
At half time, the Papi indicates the need for a roller. Opinions vary. We are joined by the linesman, who senses the chance to air his views and assures us that the ground is too soft for such a delicate operation. We study the peaks and troughs, lost in a dream of perfect pitches. The rather handsome restaurateur mentions the unusually long grass for the time of year and we nod, admitting that a judicious trim might be in order, were it not for the need to convince the Mairie to perform an out of season duty. We laugh. Ah, la France!
The whistle blows for the second half. I have three Tic Tacs and there are four of us. Ah, les Tic Tacs! I shake one into each of their palms, insisting that they are welcome. As I look up, my son (the goalkeeper) performs an elaborate step over and lets in a corner. 1:1. I clap politely.
"Allez les jaunes!" I call from the sidelines.
Moments later, just as I have asked about the excessively noisy frogs and am listening to a minute description of one, we score from a free kick, just outside the penalty area, through a chink in the five-man wall.
“Hooray! Bien joué! Allez les jaunes!”
“Allez les blues!” calls the handsome restaurateur, entering into the spirit, at last.
“Allez les verts!” I reply, going for ‘all inclusive’ with a glint in my eye.
We move to a new level of understanding.
2:1 and all is well. But only for the next fifteen minutes. After an untidy scuffle in front of the goal, the ball slips in and once more there’s all to play for.
My companions are discreet.
“C’est un bon match – pas de bagarres (no fighting)”, says the Papi’s wife. Her hair is fabulous, in a ‘Back to the Future’, kind of way.
I smile in agreement.
I grumble internally. Our team needs a win. If we descend any lower, my son tells me, it will be difficult to find officials willing to referee or run the lines. The game will become a brawl.
We watch intently as the time ticks away. The referee gives out free kicks at an exponential rate. There is increasingly colourful language, including a phrase which I’d taken to be a figment of my old French teacher’s imagination:
“Ta mère aux shorts!” shouts one of the opposition.
The Papi chuckles.
I consider the implications of such an overtly sexist remark (at the same time, I like to think I still look good in shorts…).
Then, from the centre line, our most corpulent player – a beer-bellied thirty-five-year-old (my son is 17 yet plays for the seniors) steals the ball and advances in the style of Ronaldo, dancing, dodging, ignoring the coach, who is screaming, “Lâches! Lâches! Donnes! Donnes!” (release/pass the ball!).
For God’s sake, I think, what a terrible show-off. But he beats one defender, then another. Do we dare to dream? The coach murmurs, “Putain…” One more defender is outclassed and the goalkeeper adopts the stance of a protective kangaroo (technical name: shot-stopper). Our quick-stepping hero pauses and directs the ball into the back of the net with a nonchalance that brings the crowd dangerously close to a communal cardiac arrest. I clutch my phone as I regard our linesman turn purple, and try to remember the number for Samu: is it 15, 16 or 17?
The cheering dies down and the last five minutes seem like a lifetime. The opposition does score, but the goal is given off-side. I suppress a churlish whoop. The final whistle blows and I relax.
I shake the hands of my tolerant new friends and wait for my son, who will give me a blow-by-blow account of the match on the way home. He is jubilant, yet, as always, critical of his mistakes.
I pull out a magic ham baguette and he grins.
"Thanks, Mum. You're the best!"