Thursday, 9 September 2010

Tom Williams talks football in France

Allez la France

Aside from messing around on Twitter all day, I have to deal with a great deal of enquires from football fans asking how they get tickets for matches abroad. Of those, only about 2% concern games in France. Why doesn't a trip to our 'friendly' neighbours register on English fans thrill seeking agendas?

I walked around the office today and asked a few people their thoughts on French football. They just shrugged their shoulders, and blew their lips out - rather like Robert Pires used to. I loved it when he did that.

I think Le Foot has lots going for it, but what do I know? Tom Williams knows. Tom is a sports journalist based in Paris, and works for the Agence France-Presse agency covering French football. He's also the editor of Football Further, a tremendous website covering the French game - in English - as well as a bit of tactical chat.

Brilliantly, Tom agreed to talk to EFW about French domestic football. Le Foot in the grave? Let's see shall we:

French football has taken a bit of a beating lately thanks to Les Bleus abysmal failure in recent tournaments. Tell us something positive that's happening in the domestic game in France...I think one of the consequences of the World Cup was a realisation in French football that the game needs to regain the trust and the support of the fans, principally by encouraging attacking football and making sure supporters are entertained. It hasn’t yet translated into an avalanche of goals (Ligue 1 currently averages roughly a goal per game less than the Premier League), but it has produced some really eye-opening results. Caen, who won Ligue 2 last season, beat Marseille and then Lyon in their opening two league matches by playing some really enterprising football and the big teams are all currently struggling for form, which obviously makes the league a bit more dynamic. There’s also the customary crop of young players on the verge of big things, and France’s success at the Under-19 European Championship in Normandy immediately after the World Cup showed that there are reasons to feel optimistic about the national team’s future, despite all the doom and gloom of the past few years.

And the Coupe de France throws up the odd fascinating story doesn't it? It does, yes. It’s a great competition and one of the best things about it is the rule that grants home advantage to the lower-ranked teams. There are also no replays, so it makes it much harder for the top teams to swat aside lower-league opposition. Guingamp won it in 2009 while playing in Ligue 2 and Calais reached the final in 2000 despite playing in the predominantly amateur fourth tier. Quevilly (also fourth division) were last season’s fairy-tale side, beating top-flight Rennes and Boulogne-sur-Mer before losing to eventual winners PSG in the last four.

We're hooked already, which is the best city in France to head for our European Football Weekend? I’d strongly recommend a visit to Bordeaux. It’s a beautiful place, the entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and they’ve got a magnificent tram system. Stade Chaban-Delmas is a proper crumbly, atmospheric stadium as well – and Bordeaux have played some lovely football over the past few seasons – but I’d be lying if I said my favourite thing about the city wasn’t the tram system.

You're based in Paris. That has to be the biggest city in Europe with the least amount of interest in football no? Interest in football in Paris is very difficult to gauge. On the one hand, the city’s only got one major football team (who’ve only been around for 40 years), it’s full of snooty Parisians with no interest in the game and it doesn’t feel like a football city. But on the other hand, the Parc des Princes is one of the most thrilling places in Europe to watch football when there’s a big game on, every second bloke on the metro seems to be reading L’Equipe, the banlieues are teeming with kids who eat, sleep and breathe the game, and a million people poured onto the Champs-Elysees when France won the World Cup in 1998. Football tends not to intrude into all areas of life as it does in England or Italy, but football fans here tend to be extremely knowledgeable and surprisingly passionate.

PSG have a complex fan base don't they? If they're not fighting opposing fans, they can end up fighting amongst themselves...PSG’s fan base is a perennial source of concern. When PSG played Marseille at the Parc des Princes last season, the OM supporters boycotted the match en masse in protest at security restrictions but the PSG fans fought amongst themselves and one guy was beaten to death. It all boils down to long-standing feuds between various groups of supporters. The club was only set up in 1970 and it soon attracted a hardcore, right-wing following that the management of the time – desperate to fill the stadium – were quick to welcome. But because there’s so much appetite for football in the banlieues, in the 1990s PSG took steps to attract fans from ethnic minority backgrounds as well. Broadly speaking, the ancestors of the right-wing boot boys (known as the ‘Boulogne Boys’) stand in the Boulogne end and the North African kids from the suburbs stand in the Auteil end. That’s where the tension stems from and it can make for a pretty strange atmosphere at times.

Is it generally pretty safe to watch football in France though? In general it's pretty safe, although you tend not to get families going to matches as much as you do in England. Certain clubs have a reputation for trouble, but there's very little fan-on-fan violence. Most incidents tend to involve groups of 'Ultras' either lobbing flares onto the pitch or trying to provoke the police. And if you decide to take on the French riot police, you really do need your head examining.

Has the government 'repression' of ultras seriously affected the stadium atmosphere? There were quite a few unsavoury incidents last season and, barring the odd arrest, things have been a lot calmer so far in 2010-11. The most notable changes have been at the Parc des Princes. The hardcore PSG fan groups have all been broken up and are no longer allowed to stand together in the ground, leading many of them to boycott PSG's home fixtures. There were only 22,000 fans at PSG's first game of the season (in a stadium that seats 47,000), and while there have been lots of positive noises about the new, family-oriented atmosphere and the disappearance of the hooligans, I can't help but think it's a bit of a shame. Clearly, no-one wants to see stands full of racist thugs or fans from the same team attacking and killing each other, but the atmosphere at PSG used to be really special. A lot of people in France talk about the 'Premier League model' in reverential terms, without realising what a staid and sanitised experience watching top-flight football in England has become. They might not realise what they've got until it's gone.

Is it expensive to watch football in France? I think it depends where you go. Big games between the big clubs can often cost an arm and a leg, but if you were watching Caen, for example, you'd be paying about €180 for a season ticket in the cheapest seats and €15 for a one-off match ticket.

The beer isn't cheap is it? A night on the beers in France can seem outrageously expensive when you grew up drinking £1.49 pints of Fosters in your local Wetherspoons (as I did). A pint of lager in a Parisian bar can cost €7 or even €8, with ‘Happy Hour’ pints still setting you back €5 (about £4.20). There are bars in every city where you can drink cheaply though; you just have to steer clear of the tourist traps.

Can you recommend us a nice bottle of red to enjoy with our post-match meal? I wish I could. My wine knowledge is pretty abysmal. Merlot's supposed to be pretty decent though, isn't it? And if that's no good, it'll only set you back half a week's wages to get a round in.

How many daily football papers are there in France, and are they worth reading? L'Equipe is the only national sport daily, but regional papers like La Provence (Marseille region), Sud Ouest (Bordeaux region) and Le Parisien tend to have pretty good football coverage. I think L'Equipe is a fantastic read, mainly because their football coverage is only about football. There are no paparazzi pictures of footballers stumbling out of nightclubs, no hatchet jobs on unpopular players or managers, and no journalists shamelessly twisting coaches' words in search of a quote that can be ripped from its context and turned into a juicy story. When a coach gives an interview in L'Equipe, his words are just printed verbatim, which I find really refreshing. I know some people think L'Equipe is a bit dry - and they do publish an awful lot of transfer rumours - but if your interest is primarily in the game, rather than the soap opera that surrounds it, it's a breath of fresh air.

I take it there's saturation coverage on television as well? I wouldn't say it's saturation coverage, no. As I said before, football doesn't muscle in on mainstream culture in France in the same way as it does in England. But you can still watch all the football you could possibly want to. Canal+ shows all Ligue 1 matches as well as the Champions League, the Europa League and the big matches from England, Italy and Spain. France's games are all on terrestrial TV, while there are magazine shows similar to Football Focus over the weekend and a Match of the Day-style highlights programme on Canal+. I am yet to discover a French equivalent to Tim Lovejoy or James Corden though.

How refreshing. What's the punditry like then? Standard stuff or controversial and compelling? I'd say it's pretty good in general. There's much more informed debate than in England and the ex-pros who appear on TV don't come across as plaudit-spouting morons like (some of) their English (and Scottish) counterparts. Guys like Christophe Dugarry and Bixente Lizarazu can usually be relied upon to stick the boot in, particularly when the national side are concerned. There were some fantastically heated debates during the World Cup, including a stand-off on live TV between Lizarazu and Raymond Domenech that ended with Lizarazu calling Domenech a liar after Domenech said the France 1998 team had refused to speak to the media. French football coverage is also noticeably less insular than its English equivalent, mainly because there are high-profile French players and coaches working all over the world.

I'd say in general, English football fans aren't too enamoured with French domestic football. Is that reciprocal? No, it's the complete opposite. The Premier League is very popular in France and a lot of French football fans have a second, English team (which, for obvious reasons, is almost always Arsenal). It's mainly because French players have played such a significant role in English football over the last 15 years or so. I'm sure English football fans would take much more of an interest in Ligue 1 if, for example, Jack Wilshere was loaned out to Marseille or David Beckham chose to wind down his career at Monaco.

It's been a while since French football fans were swinging a fast shoe down the Champs Elysees in celebratory mode. Has the doom and gloom of the national team rubbed off domestically? Yeah, a lot of people are pretty fed up with football at the moment. France has long had a fairly sniffy attitude towards football and in the wake of the World Cup, there was no end of philosophers, politicians and right-wing nut-jobs crawling out of the woodwork to criticise the game and its spoilt/disrespectful/useless players. French football is at a bit of a crossroads. The international team's problems have been well documented, but there are problems in the domestic game too. Debts are mounting at an alarming rate (from an aggregate deficit of €34m in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 in 2009 to around €100m in 2010), largely because French clubs traditionally rely more on money from player sales than teams in the other major European leagues and there's just not much money being spent in Europe at the moment. To make matters worse, young players are being 'poached' by the big European clubs before they've even represented the team that formed them (Gael Kakuta going to Chelsea from Lens, Man United taking Paul Pogba from Le Havre etc.). It's not enough to turn people away from the sport in droves, but it is worrying.

Give us a couple of names of players to look out for in the future that we might not have heard of...Rennes' academy has been voted the best in France for the last five seasons in a row and they've got a few gems on their books at the moment. Holding midfielder Yann M'Vila has started all of France's first three games under Blanc – having been named in Domenech’s provisional World Cup squad – and played with remarkable assurance for a 20-year-old, while Yacine Brahimi has got the same kind of jaw-dropping technical ability as Kakuta and is now a regular member of the Rennes first team after spending last season on loan at Ligue 2 Clermont. Toulouse’s Etienne Capoue is another one to look out for. He’s a slick holding player, similar to M’Vila, and was linked to Barcelona in the summer.

And presumably those guys will get hoovered up by clubs abroad as soon as they're good enough to sign a boot deal? That is the current trend, yes, but there are exceptions. Eden Hazard, Lille's brilliant Belgian winger, is one of the most coveted young players in Europe, but he’s been admirably consistent in voicing his belief that he will learn much more playing regularly for Lille than he would sitting on the bench every weekend at one of Europe's supposed glamour clubs.

Talking of M'Vila and Rennes, they've just sold Gyan to Sunderland, but Leroy and Mangane look decent. Shall we stick our €'s on them for the title? They're a top side and they've got some supremely talented players, but the thinness of their squad counts against them. That's often the problem for clubs like Rennes, Lille and Toulouse looking to break into the European places. Only Lyon and Marseille (and, at a push, PSG) can afford to have well-paid players sitting on the bench and Bordeaux's spectacular collapse in the second half of last season showed what can happen when a successful team suddenly runs out of steam. Auxerre qualified for the Champions League last season by being extremely solid and playing on the counter-attack, but it helped that they were lucky with injuries.

Propping up the table as we speak are AC Arles Avignon. Forgive my ignorance, but they're new to me. Can you shed any light on Les Lions? At the start of 2006 they were playing in the amateur fifth division but they’ve been promoted four times in five years and are now in the top flight for the first time in their history. Coach Michel Estevan is the man chiefly responsible for their Wimbledon-esque rise but he was almost fired following a strange series of events in the summer. Club president Jean-Marc Conrad offered him a bumper two-year contract extension (complete with €600,000 severance clause), but without having consulted anyone else on the board. Conrad was promptly sacked and Estevan looked to be on his way out as well after he was suspended for going to the French Professional League in a bid to get his original contract restored, before the new co-presidents, Marcel Salerno and Francois Perrot, had a change of heart. The club made a load of quite random summer signings, including former Watford favourite Hameur Bouazza and Greek internationals Angelos Basinas and Angelos Charisteas, and to cap it all, their new assistant coach is Robert Duverne, the former fitness coach whose legendary training ground strop in South Africa became one of the defining images of France’s World Cup fiasco.

On a personal note, look at you with your 4000 plus followers on Twitter. See people do love French football...I think it just shows how influential French football continues to be, despite Ligue 1 not being a tremendously popular league. There are French players and coaches working at some of the most glamorous football clubs in the world and what happened at the World Cup only served to pique interest (or perhaps just good old-fashioned schadenfreude) in what happens on the other side of the Channel. I have to be careful though. Start tweeting live updates on Brest v Valenciennes on a Saturday evening and you’ll find that you lose followers at the rate of roughly one a minute.

Far be it for me to *cough* plug my own site but I'm told you read EFW. Yes, I’m a big fan. It’s become so easy to follow football exclusively using television and the internet that you forget about the primary importance of watching live football. The joy of discovering a new ground (and with it a new town or city) while travelling in support of your team was one of the factors that made football such a phenomenally successful sport in the first place.

Any other football blogs - French or otherwise - you'd point us towards? I’m a bit of a tactics nut, so I’m a regular visitor to sites like Zonal Marking, Santapelota and The Arsenal Column. I also like quirky statistics websites like Mirko Bolesan and The Best Eleven, and there are some great videos at The Backwards Gooner.

That's it Tom. Thanks a million for taking the time to talk to EFW. My pleasure.

Follow Tom and European Football Weekends on Twitter.

Enrich your knowledge of French football by reading Football Further.

- Feel free to comment below -


James said...

A surprisingly interesting read that Danny. Surprising in that it was very informative about a subject I know little about, apart from the fact that three of my favouritist-ever players are French - Platini, Zidane and Le God.
Thanks Tom

Wayne Garcia said...

Very good Tom, i envy you. My dream is to work with French Football, it's the number one league i follow after Conference football (Luton Fan)

Adam said...

A very interesting read. I too live in Paris and agree with pretty much all Tom says. It is a real shame that there isn't a second or third club in Paris (although historically there have been 5-6 big clubs in Paris), but Paris FC are currently top of the third divsion!

I used to go and watch Racing and Red Star a bit, bit the crowd sizes and atmosphere are more comparable to about the 10th tier of the English football pyramid - an no-one drinks any beer!

Pompey Mark said...

Very interesting read. Recently during a holiday in Normandy attended Caen v Brest which was an enjoyable experience. My first French league match although on previous holidays have been to Monaco Champions League and UEFA Cup matches. Brest had a decent sized and very noisy away support. Very reasonably priced tickets and a good stadium. Most suprising thing to me was the very very away friendly referee and a very poor decision to send off a Caen player.

Tom said...

From a French point of view, this is an extremely interesting interview. Tom Williams is spot on in just about everything he says, especially the PSG. Paris is not a football city, and yet the atmosphere at the Parc des Princes is amazing. I watched a couple of games there, meaningless UEFA ties... and yet it beats any other stadium I went to in Europe by a mile (Bernabeu included - especially Bernabeu in fact). The plan to break the stands has been widely praised in the French press but in the long run it will have dreadful consequences. The Auteuil and Boulogne fans were violent but they were the only ones able to sing the whole game through.
I don't agree with him about French punditry too - I think it's a complete disgrace, always looking for refereeing controversies and pointless debate, and as a result very poor tactics-wise.
A good website with a different take on French football is Les Cahiers du football. Their "diaporama" is usually hilarious, but you need to know French football well to get the jokes.

Thanks again for this interview.

MenShoes said...

Thank You

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