European football’s been popular with fans in this country for a while now. Maybe it started with James Richardson supping a cappuccino and translating Gazetta headlines that first gave us a taste for the exotic fare available on the continent. Maybe it was when Spanish souvenir shop owners realised they could do a lot of business with the Brits if they hung fake Real Madrid or Barcelona shirts up under the veranda. The term 'El Clasico’ has certainly entered the football lexicon in the last few years. Christ, people down the pub even talk about having been to see a game at the ‘Camp Know’ these days and every fan that’s fed up with their Premier League club flies off to watch Borussia Dortmund or Schalke of a weekend instead.
I actually picked up a Barça shirt as a lad on a summer holiday in Catalonia once, or should that be Catalunya? It was the Meyba one and it had ‘Maradona’ and the number 10 on the back. It was a pretty smart souvenir of the Argentine’s brief time at the club. Actually, I think he’d already left by the time I got home. But that wasn’t the first shirt I’d picked up on foreign travels. I’d done better before - much. much better. So much better in fact that it’ll never be Spain, or Italy or Germany for me, it’ll always be France.
It began in the summer of 1981, when I dragged my parents round countless sports shops and hypermarchés in search of a football shirt to take home as a souvenir of our first ever holiday in France. It became like the Holy Grail. We were staying near Béziers, this was very much rugby country, and football didn’t seem at all popular in that part of the world at the time. Certainly the search went on into the second or third week of the vacation, probably driving my parents mad. Finally, I found it. We’d ventured into a sports shop in the city and there it was, a thing of quite exquisite beauty, a Saint Etienne shirt, still the best looking football shirt I’ve ever seen. It was made by Le Coq Sportif and the material looked and felt like cotton although I think it was manmade. It was green with white horizontal double pinstripes and it had a massive sponsor’s logo, Super Tele, in white felt letters across the front. Finally, my francs came out of the wallet. Allez Les Verts!
The same kit was being modelled by Michel Platini (albeit with a different sponsors logo) on the front cover of something else I spent my money on that summer, a magazine called ‘Onze'. As the title suggests, it was a football mag. If the shirt was my Holy Grail, this became my Bible. It was a special issue previewing the new season. It featured a team pic and pen portraits of every team and player in the top 2 divisions. Not only that, but there were attendance figures, club records, phone numbers, shots of the stadium, the lot. For the duration of the rest of the holiday, I pored over it. I loved the kits, there were some beauties, but I compared stats as well, this was the Top Trumps era remember. I kept that mag for years, in fact, if I search hard enough I might still have it somewhere.
That started a tradition that I follow to this day. Every time I go to France on holiday in the summer, I go hunting for my season preview magazine. I’m very selective. I don’t buy the A3 size ones, they don’t have team pictures in them. In fact, I was actually struggling to find one at all this summer. I rejected the only one that I could find on the shelves of the sports magazine section, produced under the title Libero, a new name to me, it didn’t have team pictures and it didn’t have a comprehensive section on all the teams in Ligue 2, no deal. Eventually, Planète Foot’s August/September issue arrived just in the nick of time. Purchase made, just as I first did as a 12 year old, I rushed back to base and flicked back and forwards through it, comparing kits, and assessing stats, only this time I did it in the company of my eldest daughter who’s also now showing signs of being bitten by the French football bug.
Together, we chose our best and worst kits, craziest hairstyle (Didier Ndong of Lorient) and played the game of finding the shirt with the most sponsors logos. The French seem to have far fewer hang-ups about sending their players out in tops that look like they should be worn by an F1 driver. For the record, Montpellier-Herault won this year with a total of 7 different brands on their shirt and shorts. By the way, they also publish all the clubs' budgets in the stats section so we know that PSG spend the most at €500m and Ligue 1 new boys, Gazélec Ajaccio, will be trying to compete with them on a budget of 13.8 million and an average gate of 2308.
Last summer, I dragged everyone along to a Girondins De Bordeaux roadshow at a nearby resort and afterwards posed for photos in the souvenir t-shirts I’d bought for daughter#1 and myself. Style-conscious Daughter#2 declined the offer. This year, I raised the bar, with an actual game to attend.
Every year, prior to departure, I check the internet for any clubs local to our chosen destination. Then, I use my rudimentary French to try and work out whether they might actually have a game I can get to whilst I’m in the vicinity. One summer, a long, long time ago, I actually saw a league game, AS Cannes v Sochaux, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time since. Until this year..
I discovered Luçon, our nearest town, had a team in the National League, the 3rd division but more akin to our Conference. I read a match report on their recent friendly against Angers on the website and there, at the end of it, was the tantalising suggestion that their next ‘match amicaux' was against FC Nantes, the following Wednesday, whilst I was still on holiday. FC Nantes! Top division! The French Norwich! Zut Alors!
Careful preparations began. I had to include the family at the initial stage, only fair. Megan,eldest, was keen to come along, wife and Millie, youngest, were not to be persuaded. Next up, my priority on the day of the game was making sure I got the family stuff, trip to the beach, barbecue, out of the way in time to ensure I made a distinctly unFrench kick off time of 7pm. It was a struggle, the kebabs had to be finished in the oven. Still, we made it, just, the two of us joining the queues at Luçon’s tiny stadium for the visit of the big boys and a large contingent of travelling supporters, complete with banners and flares.
As we entered the ground, one decent stand and rest of the pitch surrounded by a beautifully manicured 2 metre high hedge, I was in football heaven. My first ever French 3rd division ground and my first ever French pre-season friendly! All this on the same day that I’d caught my first ever fish in the lake adjoining our cottage, a very special day indeed.
We wandered around the ground during the game, taking it all in. Truth be told, I was looking for a club shop, old habits die hard. There’s nothing better than turning up for Wednesday night 5-a-side in a French 3rd division shirt, believe me. There was red wine on offer and half baguettes stuffed with frites and mayonnaise, but no red shirts, scarves or even badges for me to take home. I had to turn my focus back to the game, a hard-fought 2-0 win for a Nantes side featuring at least one familiar face, Adryan, 'the new Zico’, who’d proved utterly unsuited to the rigours of life in Leeds last season.
Given the years of research, I’m quite well up on the game in France now. That massive PSG budget’s a shame because one of the glories of their game is the element of unpredictability. Clubs’ can dominate, then disappear. When I bought that St Etienne shirt, they were Top Dogs, European Cup finalists in ’76, they’d just won what would turn out to be their tenth and last Ligue 1 title. Prior to PSG’s Qatari takeover, the league had 5 different winners in 5 seasons and 9 different winners in 20 seasons, including the likes of Lille, Lens and Montpellier. On top of that, tiny clubs occasionally make incredible climbs, like Gazélec Ajaccio who were in the CFA, the regional 4th tier, 5 years ago. They often then fall away just as quickly as they’ve risen. AS Cannes were top division when I saw them in the late 80’s, now they’re in the Amateur leagues.
Football’s become a much more prominent sport in the last few years but things started to change even during my early visits. For many youthful years, I had a big poster of the French World Cup team from 1982 on my bedroom wall. I loved that side, Giresse, Tigana, Six, Tresor, Platini and the rest. Schumacher remains a hate-figure for me for what he did to Patrick Battiston in that infamous incident in the World Cup semi-final. The next time I went looking for a souvenir shirt, just after ’82, I found the long sleeved version of the one worn in Spain, another classic, without anything like as much trouble. Indeed, I remember a French family cheering as I walked passed their tent wearing it.
The club game grew with the success of the national side. My preview mags started to feature recognisable faces and names. There was Chris Waddle wearing the shirt of Marseille, Glenn Hoddle for Monaco, Lee Chapman at Niort and Tony Cascarino at Nancy. Now, the flow’s all the other way and I get to see pics of numerous young French players months before they turn up in Arsenal’s Capital One Cup squad.
I knew things had changed completely when I made my first return to the Bezièrs area a few years ago. This time, our resort featured a large shop selling nothing but Olympique Marseille merchandise and every other French guy seemed to be wearing a football shirt. I actually felt disappointed, thrill of the chase and all that.
The one item I really need to look for is a big French football anorak because this season I’ll be intrigued to see how the two Paris clubs, FC and Red Star, fare in Ligue 2 together for the first time and whether St Etienne are destined for a return to the top now they’ve got Le Coq Sportif making their kit again?
I’ll be keeping an eye on Luçon’s results in National Ligue as well, naturellement, particularly as I stumbled across the merchandise concession on a swift detour to the local Intersport store on the homeward journey at the end of this year’s holiday. I didn’t buy the shirt, it was 70 euros, that’s 10 for every sponsor’s logo that appears on it. I did, however, purchase a more reasonably priced Vendée Luçon Football tracksuit top. As my daughter pointed out, it’ll be great for those chilly Wednesday night kickabouts. That’s my girl!