What better way to spend your European trip?
It's dark now and I'm alone and uncertain of my way as I work through some part of Paris about eight kilometres and three hours from where and when I started. I've got cramp in one calf and my lower back is sore—I'm not as fit as when I left Canada a month ago. I've only got shorts on so if the forecast is wrong and the temperature goes below four Celsius I might be in trouble. I have no change of clothes other than an extra pair of socks, so if the forecast is right about the rain I might be in trouble too.
My stinginess over what to put in the plastic bag wasn't just from the need to limit the weight I'd have to run with. I was uncertain about the character of this part of the city, and should I get mugged, or pickpocketed, or caught unaware by a lurking thief preying on those absorbed in a game, I'd like to lose as little as possible. The socks are a luxury, whereas my keys and cleats are necessities. The fourth and final thing in the bag, my Métro pass, may as well be necessary too since there’s no way I’ll make it back on foot regardless of whether I complete my mission. I’m wearing an old, cheap, inaccurate Timex Velcro watch that I only ever use for running, and it tells me that it’s a few minutes before 7pm.
It's the Métro pass I'm contemplating as I approach a station. I could skip my second last stop, Parc André Citroën, and take a ride straight to Centre Sportif Suzanne Lenglen. The Internet has told me there will definitely be people playing at Suzanne Lenglen, whereas André Citroën might be a let down like the base of the Eiffel Tower was. Then again, even if I gain entrance and find the players at Suzanne Lenglen I'm not sure if I’ll have enough energy left to do anything other than make a fool of myself, or if they'll even let me into their game. Perhaps the wise thing is to just take the Métro back to where I’m staying. I've already played twice in the three stops I've made so far, and that's more than enough to put this whole thing to the been there, done that column.
The problem is that I'm not here just to cross something off my bucket list. I'm not just here to play; this is work, research for my writing. Even though the novel I'm working on concerns football in Canada, whatever I observe about the game elsewhere might validate or correct my views on what makes the Canadian scene unique, and whatever I experience here will likely aid in future projects even if not the current one. Whether or not I’ll be able to play, I must visit these sites and report on whatever I do or don't find there. At the very least I can make a record for the next visitor of where to look or not for football in Paris.
I study the map to get my bearings and then walk off from the station. After the second game, where I’d felt the first signs of cramp, the running had turned to alternating intervals of walking and jogging, and then eventually just walking. Of course if I hadn't run to my first stop, if I had taken the Métro back then, I wouldn't be labouring the way I am now. I got greedy though: the sun was up and a run along the Seine seemed a great way to take in the beauty of the city. It turns out that trying to do too much can be a problem not only on the pitch.
When I made my first stop around twenty minutes to five at Esplanade des Invalides, where the Internet had told me there might be a game, something caught my attention almost immediately. Even from distance, even with the pedestrians flowing all around me, and even too far to hear the accompanying vocals over the busy traffic, I saw what looked like the same dance that I saw all the time back home. When I got close enough for my eyes to confirm the presence of a ball rolling between the dancers, the reality of what was before me set in.
It was the first time I was seeing the game played up-close in this giant of a footballing nation. Whatever troubles France might face these days or in the future, this would always be the country that gave birth to both FIFA and the World Cup, and the country that had won the first World Cup I ever watched and then won the European Championships two years later to accomplish the rare feat of simultaneously holding the two biggest international trophies. This would also always be the country that had produced Zidane.
My excitement was kept in check by nerves: I’d have to work up the courage to ask them if I could join, and my lack of confidence with the French language didn’t make it any easier.
I made it obvious that I was looking to play, laced up, and when the ball went out near me I asked in English if I could join. I got a few half-hearted mumbles in accented English and then I was just ignored. The game continued, and I watched from the sidelines. I was six time zones from home and utterly alone despite the hundreds of tourists and locals around me. I don’t care much for ice hockey back home, but the sight of a guy rollerblading by with a stick surprised and comforted me.
It was a six-on-six game with backpacks demarking the small goals. To be fair, I could see why they didn’t want an outsider to disrupt the good thing they had going: intensity, focus, abandon. They were teenagers or just recently beyond: young enough to have energy and enthusiasm, old enough to know what they’re doing. The level was decent, but not better than what I get in a good pickup game back home. One guy with an AC Milan, Pato shirt stood out, but not enough to keep his team from leaking goals. Slide-tackles were flying, which is rare in pickup games where I come from, but I’m not sure that the field conditions gave these guys much of a choice. What looked like beautiful grass from afar was really mud, which was somehow both sticky and slippery.
Two guys came over to the sidelines for some water. I asked again. They told me that they were going to stop soon. I said that it was okay. I played football in France.
Between the underinflated ball, the surface that at times made me feel like I was on wheels instead of studs, and the difficulty in remembering who was on my team, I wasn’t going to do anything spectacular, but I did my bit and my teammates seemed alright with that. There was a point in the game when I played a square ball into the middle and then ran behind my teammate across from his right to his left with the silent hope of collecting the ball back from him. He read from my body what I would struggle to explain in the moment even in English, and he held the ball for the perfect length of time before laying it into my path. If I wasn’t sure whether they played a drastically different game here from back in the minnow of a football country that Canada is, or whether the universality of the game would trump cultural differences in dictating what I’d see tonight, here was a suggestion for the latter.
Twenty minutes later, about quarter after 5 PM, it was over and I was running off into the Parisian sunset. With precious light slipping away I didn’t linger to talk: just gave my “merci”s and “au revoir”s, and received my “bien joué”. The encounter that started with me creepily watching them from the sidelines in awkward silence ended in smiles all around.
It’s now a little after 7 PM and I’ve just arrived at Parc André Citroën, the third stop of my plan and fourth overall, which I’d only added to my list because I’d seen a big green thing on Google Maps somewhat on the way from the Eiffel Tower to Suzanne Lenglen. There are no lights so, like back at the Eiffel Tower, there cannot be a game here. I jog back to the main road, not wanting to linger in the dark. I seem to have walked off the worst of my cramp. Now the calf just feels sore as if I’d given it a hard work out the day before. Maybe I’ll recover enough, find enough of a second wind, to have a real go at the Suzanne Lenglen, the final stretch of my journey.
The kind people who made the documentary movie Pelada, part of my inspiration for tonight’s journey, had told me that they’d found a game at the base of the Eiffel Tower near the Military College, so that was the second stop on my list. Unfortunately, in the few minutes it took for me to get there from the patch of mud where I’d played that first game, the remaining sunlight had left us. I looked around anyways since I was there. A lot, if not all, of the grass was cordoned off from use, but I did find an unlit futsal court. I then continued my journey west to meet the river again and then head towards this park that I’ve just passed, not expecting what I found in between.
With plenty of tall buildings around I didn’t have much of a view ahead of me so, when I rounded a corner shortly after leaving the crowd at the base of the Eiffel Tower, the lights of Centre Sportif Emile Anthoine were like a Christmas morning surprise. Through the fence I saw a full-sized field surrounded by a track, and there were people kicking footballs around in there. I had to get in somehow. I walked around the perimeter looking for an open gate, but found nothing before coming up to the building that held the swimming pool, the change rooms, and whatever else. I walked in not knowing if this facility was only for paying members. There was a guy sitting behind the reception desk, but I didn’t ask questions and neither did he. I found my way through corridors and out to the field.
There were several groups of players taking shots at different goals around the field. They hadn’t started a game yet, which meant that, if one were to start, I’d have an easier time getting into the action. The surface was a strange one that I’d never seen before. It was like pavement or some other hard surface covered in a fine layer of sand, but the layer wasn’t thick enough to give way or sink into, and it wasn’t slippery like sand on pavement would be. Everyone else wore outdoor cleats, but I chose to stay in my running shoes and neither them nor I seemed to have trouble gripping.
They were all teenagers again and sporting a variety of different football shirts—Barcelona, Liverpool, Portugal, etc.—but surprisingly no French ones, national or club. Even the guy running around the track was wearing a Manchester United shirt. We must have been seven or eight players a side, and we played laterally across half the field. There were already goalposts in place on either side, not full sized ones but big enough to encourage shooting. Behind the goal that I was attacking was a fairly large building, but wider than tall. Straight up right behind it was the Eiffel Tower lit against the night sky. Even though I didn’t get to play at the spot the Pelada filmmakers described, this second game of the night would get me my dose of the towering landmark.
I scored the first goal of the game, but eventually found myself running back to cover more and more. The calf seized up at some point, but after quick stretch it was at the back of my mind. My teammate with the Portugal shirt must have put in three or four goals as we demolished the other team. The game lasted about forty-five minutes and then I was exchanging “merci”s and “au revoir”s again. A younger boy asked me for the time then, seeing me struggle to do the conversion, looked at my watch.
“Ahh, Toronto,” he pronounced with his French accent as he smiled and nodded.
Then I left the lights of my surprise stop and of the looming Eiffel Tower to head into the darkness.
It’s now about twenty minutes past 7 PM, and the light at end of my figurative tunnel looms ahead dwarfing whatever there was before the darkness: the massive things that illuminate what must be Suzanne Lenglen that I see from a long way off make me forget what there was at my previous game. It takes me a while to find my way through the buildings that stand between me and my destination, and then more time is spent circling the huge complex to find a way in. Once I’m inside the fence, having entered by some way other than the main, I still have to pick my way through some areas that are barricaded off and some bush before reaching the field.
The first thing I notice, before even the ridiculous size of the facility, is the presence of a different kind of football. I’m shocked by the sight of a full complement of guys in helmets and shoulder pads. I don’t remember the last time I saw this even back home where gridiron football gets more respect than the world’s game. It’s a surprise not unlike seeing the guy with the hockey stick back at Esplanade des Invalides. It’s also worrying that the field is occupied by these guys until I realize that there are more pitches on the other side of this main one enclosed by the track. There are three more full-sized football pitches with smaller lights, and those ones seem to be used exclusively for association football. I pick my way through the athletes around the bleachers and through those running on the track towards the fields on the other side.
All four of the fields have the kind of artificial surface with the little black rubber pellets, the kind that has become popular back in southern Ontario over the last few years. Each of the fields is crawling with people and the scene reminds me of a popular field that I frequently visit, especially when I need a night-time dose of footy, back in Waterloo, Ontario. The facility here is exactly like Wilfred Laurier University’s Alumni Field except it has four times the space and four times the action. Friends casually kicking a ball around, little games, bigger games, team practices—it’s all to be found here.
I pick a field. I lace up. I run around a bit to clean the mud from earlier off my cleats and to see what my legs have left. My body is definitely tired, but when my blood gets flowing I probably won’t remember that. The bigger issue now is working up the courage to approach the guys gathered around the goal. This time they look like they might be around my age. Some might be a few years younger, in university perhaps, but most look beyond that. Some are sitting in the goal while others are standing around talking, and I can’t tell if they’re just starting or just finishing. A couple of them are passing a ball around and I can immediately tell that this group is of a higher calibre than the others I’ve met today.
I eventually make my way over to the group and determine that they are about to break into a game. Some of the guys lingering around leave and then those of us who remain divide into two teams of four. Just like back home at Alumni Field, we’ll play inside the eighteen-yard box with small goals marked out with our belongings. Unlike at the previous game there is a French football shirt here: the guy sporting Saint-Étienne colours is on my team. There’s a Juventus shirt on the other team and, though that’s an Italian team from Turin, French players including Zidane have plied their trade there in the past.
The best player, dressed in a grey sweat suit, is on the other team, but the game is pretty even. These guys are good, but I’ve got my second wind and I’m keeping up with the pace of the game: I manage to score a goal and I win a teammate’s approval by making a tight dribble between two players even though a third opponent cuts off my pass. As the fatigue returns though, I make more and more mistakes and it becomes increasingly evident that the Saint-Étienne supporter isn’t as happy with my playing. Even though he only speaks French I can tell that he wants me to make my plays quicker, but he also wants me to calm things down. They’re conflicting directives so, as the more approving teammate hints to me, it’s just nonsense that I shouldn’t dwell upon. The problem is that I’ve heard same advice before from my real teammates back home. How is it even possible that this deficiency in my game, which is so paradoxical and perplexing to me, is so simply and identically observed in two parts of the world that are so different both on and off the pitch? How can I not dwell on this now?
Eventually two players leave, including the guy who’s more supportive of my efforts, and we’re down to three-on-three: even more space, even more running. At some point I try to reach a difficult ball but pull up with a yelp as I feel a sharp pain in my calf: the cramp has returned and the pain is much sharper than before. I stretch it, hoping that Saint-Étienne will understand why I missed that ball, and then I’m jogging and playing again, though gingerly at first. Every once in a while I forget my condition and try to do something I’d barely manage even when fresh, and I trigger the cramp again. It happens in the other leg too. Soon my movement off the ball is almost reduced to hobbling and it’s a task even to receive balls played right at me. I’m struggling not to weigh down my team and the game.
Gradually, because of my body’s condition rather than by choice, I do play calmer, and by conscious effort I do make my plays quicker in the sense that I make more passes on the first touch. Maybe this is what the concurring advice from either side of the Atlantic was suggesting? Maybe it all comes back to not trying to do too much?
Saint-Étienne seems to have become more tolerant of me now, but this might also be due to his realization that I don’t speak French, and because my visible labouring has probably made me a sorry sight. He patiently explains with a lot of gesturing the positions he wants me in. My other teammate offers me water and Saint-Étienne tells me that it will help with the camp. I’m grateful as I realize that I haven’t consumed anything for close to six hours now.
With only six of us in the whole of the eighteen-yard box, it’s getting increasingly difficult to stop the guy in grey. We change our strategy so that the three of us play closer together in the middle and we leave the wings open to attack. It works better and it’s a good thing that we figured this out before it’s decided that we’ll end the night with a game to three goals.
Maybe it’s because there’s something on the line, maybe it’s because the end is in sight, or maybe it’s because the water is starting to take effect, but I seem to be able to push myself that little bit more now. We come out flying and go up two goals to none early on, but then we find ourselves stuck enable to the get the third. Our opponents eventually claw their way back, and then we’re sitting in deadlock at two a piece. For a while it looks like no one will be going home any time soon.
I get a little concerned as it’s getting late and those I’m travelling with have no idea where I am and don’t know when to expect me. I have no phone so we have no way of contacting each other.
The worry stays at the back of my mind though, as other thoughts dominate. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Who knows if and when I’ll be in Paris again? Maybe the next time I return I’ll be too old to play like this, or things here will have changed and I won’t be able to find a game. The air is cool but not cold. The rain has not come. The darkness is far away. There is a ball. The night is perfect.
Our third goal sends my two teammates to their knees, hugging each other. They’re champions and they’re making sure that their three friends know it even as everyone smiles and laughs. I make my way over to these two whose names I’ll never know. And then I’m in the embrace of the locals under the most beautiful lights in the whole of the night sky, in the whole of the City of Light.
You can follow Thomas on Twitter @FootballNovel