Marseille is one of the most culturally diverse and historically rich cities within Europe. The city’s place in the world and it’s ebbing and flowing fortunes have seen the Greek Empire, Caesar’s Romans, the Counts of Provence, the French Revolution, Algerian colonisation, World War II and mass immigration. Put simply, it’s something of a melting pot.
This myriad city owes its incomprehensible social spectrum to its location on the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the protection from rough seas by the natural bay of Marseille. Ever since the Vieux Port (Old Port) of the city received its first visitor, the landscape and demographic has changed and continued to be a malleable entity, oscillating with influences from new travellers and settlers from across the globe.
The vibrant story one can glean from Marseille’s past can become smudged and seen in many different lights depending what filter the observer uses. Marseille has become synonymous with drug-related violence and gang culture over the past two decades, with this being attributed to the poor, unemployed youth of the banlieues, as well as the ethnic diversity of the city as a whole.
The diversity is not to blame, a ghetto feeling has been constructed by the segregation of social classes. The poorer tend to be recent immigrants and live in the northern districts. These northern districts have been forgotten and undervalued by local government, shown through lack of investment in housing, amongst other things.
The marriage of deprived urban living and football doesn’t seem like a likely partnership; lack of green spaces, tight, narrow streets and rushing traffic are not conducive to the beautiful game. But these areas seem to and have been for a while, the frontier of football innovation.
Any so-called “90’s Kid” worth their word will think of one name if not just one letter when hearing the words “street football” – Z –
Zinedine Zidane is the one name that instantly conjures up replays in the mind’s eye of wonderful goals and genius trickery many would fail to imagine had Zidane not physically made the moves possible. Born in Castellane, Marseille, the fifth child of Algerian immigrant parents, he optimises the multicultural flavour of 20th century Marseille.
Although his family did live in relative comfort for the area (Castellane was known for its high crime and unemployment rates, even for Marseille), he was still brought up in the tower blocks that created the ghetto atmosphere. These complexes and their layout were to bring about the conditions he and countless others would perversely benefit from in terms of a football environment.
Tower blocks were laid out with minimal space in-between, only small communal squares at the centre provided any solace for a kid and his ball. This is where a young Zidane would get the opportunity to play. Pitches would be rudimentary and small but team sizes would be large, any game at school or at the park in towns and cities across the UK would attest to the draw football has on young children, but with space at a premium, long sweeping passes were never going to catch on.
Keeping the ball for yourself would be the only way to guarantee participation in the game. The ratio of players to the ball would mean any touch had to be savoured. Over days, weeks and years this needs to get the ball and keep it for yourself would be practised and perfected until other players were bouncing off you, snapping at your heels but chasing shadows cast in the Marseille sun and being met with dust from the concrete pitch.
Liberté, the French national motto of freedom, equality and unity.
Technique, habilité, agilité, the words used by the French-Algerian Yacine Brahimi to describe street football, in the documentary ‘Ballon Sur Bitume’ (concrete football).
Both tripartite mottos display the core values of their respective institutions. Freedom was born out of repression. A technique was born out of necessity, no technique means no game.
Street football isn’t anything new, multiple Brazil teams for decades have been lauded for their brilliant shows of individual skill. Surely one of the most clichéd clichés? Similar to the economic climate in many European cities, these Brazilians were forced to play the game in tight streets. However, on the spectrum of hardship, the favelas of South America and the banlieues of Marseille are magnitudes apart. The level of corruption and depravity seen in favelas where the likes of Ronaldo and Adriano learnt the game to become the superstars they did does not compare.
If Brazil is samba football then Marseille is hip-hop football. It can be rough, unfiltered and blunt but also fluid, rhythmic and expressive. Flair is important, but you need to back this up with aggressiveness and determination. You hit or you get hit.
The subculture of street football in Marseille is of such importance that anything but the best is met with ridicule from both players and spectators. Organised games, now with unforgiving crowds, are very prominent in Marseille, adding the pressure cooker of the already concentrated close quarter battles. Getting one over your opponent is the number one priority, with bragging rights lasting until the next match up. “If you fuck up a move, you better pack your stuff and go.”
This convention will seem familiar to anyone who has spent a Wednesday night playing with the self-proclaimed ‘lads’ from work against the accounting department, but skill and finesse seen on the concrete of Marseille are a different ball game to what will be seen at your local Goals Centre.
Numbers of inner city pitches increasing naturally attracts more players meaning the level of quality goes up. Comparable to the Midnight Basketball initiative in the US, urban playground investment facilitates the rise in quality, kids are able to go out and play more on surfaces not scarred with age but purposely created to aid their game.
Nike have taken the essence of concrete football and used it to flavour one of their latest creations, ‘Winner Stays’. The small sided tournament was designed to attract the best crews from cities around Europe to a colosseum of flair and technique. But the game has moved far from its roots in the rough and ready streets of metropolitan Europe, to palatial courts with fully kitted out teams playing refereed games spectated by Premier League stars such as Romelu Lukaku and punctuated by a performance from Skepta.
Is there no greater compliment to a unique, organic and revolutionary movement than being cleansed and stamped with the official branding of a ludicrously affluent exploitatory marketing machine?
Concrete football is riding this wave of capital, which the lack of ironically allowed it to develop. But it will be here for as long as a kid has space to kick a ball.
By Liam Lockwood. Full image credit goes to formi.