Soccer Bleu

On a quiet corridor of a street, perched at the top of a hill sixty-three meters above the city of Paris, there is a bar named Le Village. Like the surrounding neighborhood, which is tucked in between the high rises and boulevards of the southeastern part of the city, the bar is modest. The food is edible, and after slight renovations last year the sign out front is neon. The bar has a small dark back room, and off it a place for betting on horses, but the main action goes on in the rectangular front room, which opens onto the street through three full-length windows. Le Village is not in the Michelin guide. But if it isn’t significant the bar can be, precisely because of its ordinariness, expressive—even a kind of portal into the complexities of France, soccer, and the ways in which the two throw light on each other.

Appropriately enough, I can’t recall the first time I stooped under the bar’s low entrance and walked inside. But at some point in the summer of 2008, while a student in Paris, I began going every day, and between long afternoons in the bar, I found I could not stay away. It was a compulsion that puzzled my friends, professors, and most of all the bar’s regulars, who still look at me like a stranger. But these were the days of the European Championship soccer tournament, and I’d become transfixed by the soccer talk in the bar. When my studies ended I returned home, but on the eve of the World Cup in June of 2010, I boarded a plane for Paris to settle back in at Le Village.

It was with this intention that on a grey Thursday evening in the middle of June I took the orange metro line to where it dead-ends at a traffic circle in the thirteenth arrondissement, walked a block past travel agents and wine stores, negotiated a six-way stop light, and walked two more blocks on Rue de la Butte aux Cailles until the familiar sight of Le Village, a squat and hollow structure, came up on my left. It was 7:30 p.m., and I was early.

In an hour the French national team would meet Mexico in its second game of the World Cup, but now the bar was almost empty. A game show played muted on the televisions, and the paper soccer balls strung up on the walls had become half-unattached and were flapping in the breeze. In their first match of the World Cup, six days before, Les Bleus, as the team is called, had played middling Uruguay to a scoreless draw. Despite its talent the team was struggling and would have to collect itself tonight in order to advance.

This was, in other words, not a game to come early for; skepticism was the appropriate position. But considering that in the weeks to come this tournament would become known in France simply as le désastre, this was a prelapsarian moment in the history of French soccer. Considering, moreover, that it would be the events of tonight that opened up that abyss, this was the prelapsarian moment. I read Le Monde and sipped a beer.

* * * * *

This is how the world ends. This is how the world ends. The game began, almost unnoticed, as the French star Ribéry kicked off, catching off guard what had become just moments before a humming, huddling, gathering crowd, and the field shuddered to life in a frenzy. Ribéry was knocked down in the midfield, Mexico hit the post from a shot but the play was disallowed for offside, a combination of passes sprung the French captain Evra streaking for goal. He was brought down with a foul—a chance!—but Anelka, an imposing French forward of uncertain commitment, sent the free kick flying over the Mexican net. A soft backward pass for France was cleared just in time, a breakaway shot for Mexico missed high, Ribéry stole a pass and rushed down the left side before running himself into a corner. A set of clever, quick passes freed Ribéry to drive a cross spinning in front of the Mexican goal, but no one was there to meet it. Mexico gathered the ball, recovered, and attacked on a high pass deep into the French side. Twenty-five minutes in, the field was a flurry of little dramas and no score.

As the first half churned on in this way, the bar fell into a kind of rapture. The old man across from me, whose hair and beard almost met up near the middle of his face, dug into a plate of steak frites between long gazes at the television. Across the room, a stranger with graying, gelled hair tried to kiss a younger woman. The owner of the bar, Daniel Bouldoyré, who speaks in a chuckling Auvergne accent understood by only a handful of regulars, approached two men to my left, and great amusement followed concerning a “beer” and a “championship.” Most of the bar stared at the game in silence, arms crossed, chins up, reacting to every shift of momentum. For this first half—with the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the field, the evenness of the struggle—was for these men the height of pleasure and the point of the game.

Not many of the men in Le Village had played soccer with distinction, but almost all had grown up playing the game, in parks, at school, in the army, and in neighborhood clubs. Playing soccer had been for them a metronome to mark off the stages of life. And when they watched it now, they saw the game with the sensibility of a player. Soccer was for them neither art nor war, nor almost anything at all other than a complex of internal tensions. Back and forth, tac-tac-tac, pass, pass, defenders bearing down, escape, pass, run on to it, and so on—the idea being to put oneself in the position of the man on the field and imagine. The name they had for the highest form of soccer was the beau jeu, or beautiful game, and it signified to them the style of play that was most immersed in the inner importance of the contest. The beau jeu was about the honesty of total commitment, the difficulty of fatigue, the courage of coming back, and the way in which individuals come together around a common aim. Artistry was nice; winning was good, even very good. But it was surrender to the act of the game that the men in the bar valued most. I had been in the bar for many mediocre matches. Tonight was the first time I saw the beau jeu.

The ethic of the beau jeu runs through the culture of French soccer like rebar, guiding it in a hundred hidden ways, and helps, finally, to explain the most striking aspect of soccer in France today—the resentment of 1998. In 1998, Les Bleus, playing in France, won their first World Cup. In the aftermath of the triumph, as historian Laurent Dubois recounts in Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, the ethnically diverse French team was “immediately tied to a powerful, even utopian sense that the victory represented and promised a profound social and political transformation, one that would release France from inequality and racism and allow a new society to flourish.” Black-blanc-beur, a phrase describing the team’s black, white, and North African composition, became the slogan of the day and the model for a new France.

Today, 1998 seems far off. With each passing World Cup, it becomes clearer that no “new society” will flourish in its place. Yet for the men in the bar the important lesson of that moment, as they call it, is not that French society will never change but that soccer must not be enlisted to change it—it is nothing more than an independent act, a beautiful game. The most knowledgeable fans in the bar refused even to speak about the cultural impact of that World Cup. ("Black-blanc-black, blanc-blanc-beur—ah, I forget what that was all about," said Najib Sassenau, a regular and a Moroccan immigrant.) Those who did discuss 1998 said that, like the money in the game, or the politics in the game, the elevation of soccer into a symbol was just another distraction piled up on a series of runs up and down a field. In the bar, soccer at its best is not significant, only perfect; the events of 1998 have dissolved into shorthand for a time when culture threatened craft.

* * * * *

We found ourselves sunk in the appreciation of this craft, when, with the half nearing on the still scoreless game, both teams became too tired to run. The ball was puttering around in the midfield. Ribéry extracted himself from a defender and sprinted down the sideline, but with no result. It was halftime.

The bar emptied onto the street to smoke. All around, exhausted men from other bars were spilling out onto the sidewalk to smoke in the chilly evening, as if the buildings themselves were breathing them out in a deep exhalation. Halftime was my favorite part of the game, because the men were willing to talk. (It had been at halftime of a game in 2008 that a black man I’d befriended leaned close to me and whispered, “Do you think they will let Obama win?”) But tonight I was too worn out for conversation, so I walked up and down the cobblestone Rue de la Butte aux Cailles past the crowds of the Taverne de la Butte, the Dandelion, and the Mocking Blackbird.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the neighborhood of the Butte aux Cailles, which includes the street and the surrounding hill, was a semi-rural tangle of shacks on the banks of a stream named La Bièvre. The residents of the hill were mainly pre-industrial laborers of various sorts: tanners, fishermen, operators of wind mills, and traveling merchants known as chiffoniers, who scavenged and re-sold scraps of cloth. In 1783, when the world’s first manned hot air balloon flight came to rest on the Butte, it landed comfortably in a grassy area between two mills, Benjamin Franklin rushing delightedly to the scene on his horse. In these early days on the hill, the view of Paris in the distance is said to have been spectacular.

Yet in 1860 the Butte was incorporated into the city, along with the rest of the thirteenth arrondissement. Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect of modern Paris, reform soon followed. Much of the arrondissement was cut through with boulevards and metro lines and the river was canalized and built over, the pace of modernization due in part to the city’s desire to control the thirteenth, whose leading roles in the 1848 revolutions and 1871 Paris Commune had earned it the reputation of an independent working class area. During this period the thirteenth acquired the crowded squalor of the industrializing city but little of its charm. By 1875, a Russian visitor to the Butte reported that “even the hog is too aristocratic an animal for this place.”

Today, much of the thirteenth has the ahistorical look of many American big cities: loud commercial boulevards, tall white apartment buildings, and a large population of recent immigrants. But the Butte aux Cailles is more or less the old thing. It is wealthier than before, and the chiffoniers have disappeared. But the streets still run like veins over the hill, many unchanged from before the annexation. Most of the residents are artists, merchants, and workers. The Butte, they say with pride, is populaire, or of the people. On summer evenings, there are festivals in the streets, and the hill seems once more like a hamlet on the outskirts of a city.

This was one of those evocative nights. The hum going along the street was an echo of that old ersatz Butte aux Cailles, resting in the shade of the stream. And Le Village, too, was a distillery of that past. The clientele drew from all walks of life, and as a rule I could never tell a man’s occupation from his appearance, but the regulars were older and more solidly middle class than at the surrounding bars. They were almost all male—a little ripple of excitement went through the bar whenever a woman walked in. There was no music, and no one spoke English. Le Village was a place for casually employed journalists, construction workers, philosophy professors, architects, and retired accountants to come for a drink and a sandwich, see the old crowd, and shake hands. As I made my way back to the bar, halftime was ending, and the smoke-filled street was emptying back inside.

* * * * *

Play had resumed by the time I returned to my seat in a corner of the front room, which was now warm and glowing against the darkening street. The game was again swinging wildly from end to end, until, out of a characterless exchange in the midfield, a breakthrough. The French midfielder Malouda brought the ball over to the left side and passed it to Evra, who flicked it behind him to Ribéry, who laid it back for Malouda, who had been running toward the goal since he’d passed the ball moments before, and who, with one preparatory dribble, clobbered the Adidas Jabulani ball on goal. The Mexican goalkeeper tipped it over the crossbar. But here it was in its purest form! Enter: the beau jeu!

And at this moment, a man I had never seen before stumbled into the bar. He wasn’t badly dressed, but his hair was falling over his face and he was drunk. Taking note of the play, he loudly chanted Allez la France! Allez la France! and waved his arms, exhorting the bar to join in. The men looked away. A few approached the drunk soothingly and asked him to stop. He did, and the men guided him into a seat. In the back room another fan rang a cowbell and called out Allez les Bleus! He, too, was chided and calmed down. Now, at the point of peak excitement in the game, the bar sat in silence.

The men had been put off by the drunkard’s indiscretion, but there was also, presiding over the quiet bar, a more fundamental taboo at work, one which cuts to the heart of what makes French soccer culture distinctive. The only other time the bar dropped into that discomforting quiet during a match was just before it began, when “La Marseillaise” was played. From my first game in the bar, I had been struck by the men’s indifference to the national anthem. When it came on just before the kickoff of each game, their focus would go slack. Almost no one watched, and no one sang. When I asked the men about this moment, almost every one of them answered with the same universalizing response: On n’est pas patriot en France. One is not patriotic in France—delivered without condescension, just as a fact. Their distrust of patriotism was also the key to this mid-game silence. The drunkard’s real offense had been what he’d said rather than the way he’d said it.

Throughout the world, soccer is often a forum for nationalism. In the bar, though, it never was, and in fact it was around soccer that the taboo against nationalism was most carefully enforced. In part, this came from the beau jeu, the idea that the game should be enjoyed without ulterior motives. But the men’s suspicion of nationalism extended beyond soccer, and its sources did as well.

In France, nationalism is tainted. During the Second World War, it was most of all the nationalist Right in the wartime Vichy government that not only collaborated with the Nazis but acted on its own to carry out the Holocaust in France. (The full scope of these atrocities has only gradually become clear throughout the postwar era.) In the Algerian War, it was a nationalist obsession with preserving Empire at all costs that drew France into the conflict that has been called its Vietnam—long, savage, futile—and nationalism came to be seen by many in the years that followed as a kind of coded language for colonialism. Since the 1980s, nationalist discourse has been taken over by the far Right National Front party, whose anti-Semitism and reactionary anti-immigrant stance are the constant torment of those who see France as the standard bearer of Enlightenment values. “La Marseillaise,” finally, with its revolutionary call to take up arms against “impure blood,” calls up nationalism’s whole miserable record in postwar France.

The men of the bar felt the burden of this past. Nationalism was for them what racism is for us in America. Claude Fleurot is tall, with a gravely voice, and always wears a hat. He’s retired now and spends much of his time volunteering at the local Friends of the Paris Commune office a block away from the bar. Claude was born in 1939 on a train from Berlin to Paris as his parents fled Hitler. “You realize, do you not,” he asked me one hot afternoon as he relaxed, shirt unbuttoned, in the Commune office, “that nationalism has been responsible for terrible things in this world?”

* * * * *

So order in the bar was restored. The game continued, and conversations resumed. The French did nothing with the corner kick they’d earned on the previous play. And then, in the 64th minute, without even the courtesy of a warning, a short pass up the middle of the field found the Mexican forward Hernández all alone thirty yards from the French goal. He gathered the ball, slid past the French keeper Lloris, and knocked it home for a goal. 1-0.

The air went out of the bar. The man across from me looked up from his steak and, seeing the goal, slumped down in his chair until he was almost under the table. Claude and Manuel, two old friends who watched every game together, went slack-jawed, their chins almost dipping into round mugs of beer. For a time, the French team seemed awoken by the goal and we, for a time, got behind them—parties to the resistance. (2-1 pour la France, predicted a fat man in the opposite corner of the bar, to general satisfaction.) Yet within minutes of the goal, without any decisive or singular event, the game had fallen unmistakably out of reach.

Soccer is a game of impressions, a back-and-forth flow in which many of the essential events and qualities cannot be measured and the one definite measure, the score, is a crude summary grafted onto a far more intricate phenomenon. By looking at a box score, you can recreate a baseball game. But understanding a soccer match is hardly statistical. It’s a matter of constructing, from a chaos of little gestures, a sense of what is happening. And after those few promising minutes following the goal, without knowing exactly where it had come from, one felt a growing sense that something had come undone on the French side. The effort that had seemed in the first half like initiative now seemed like selfishness, what had seemed like patience now seemed like a crippling inability to strike. Ribéry was dancing over the ball, shoulders hunched, with apparently no idea where the goal was. Later, the men told me that they, too, had seen everything collapse during these minutes: it was “the descent into the Underworld,” one mathematics professor said.

It struck us as no surprise, then, when in the 78th minute a Mexican forward was fouled in the French box and a round 37-year-old named Blanco scored on the penalty kick. As the ball curled into the side of the net, conversation erupted in the bar—about the French coach Domenech, Anelka, the federation that oversees the team, Ribéry, the salaries of all these people, the weather, the most recent political scandal, and how all these things were, in their own little ways, crummy as hell. With the game an afterthought, the bar became a roiling din. The beer that the owner of the bar and his friends had mentioned earlier, it now became clear, had won a championship, and a trophy was brought out. People peering through the windows from the street saw the score, recoiled, and polemicized. The bartender went out to smoke. The bartender’s wife went out to smoke. Everyone went out to smoke. The young man sitting next to me with a missing front tooth threw up his hands melodramatically: Bye, bye, la France.

Whenever I talked to the men about soccer, I would begin by asking them if they were supporteurs, or fans, of the team. They almost never were—at most they were supporteurs “sometimes,” “slightly,” or “not right now.” They might talk passionately, even compulsively, about the team, but not being a supporteur—not wearing costumes to games, not weeping ridiculously over losses, not feeling as if their abject selves were in play in every match—was a point of honor with them. Their interest was analytical. In wins, they seemed to admire without celebration; in losses, they disengaged without remorse. (Six days from tonight, when France’s World Cup ended with a loss to South Africa, the small crowd in the bar abandoned Les Bleus and cheered on its opponents—satisfied, in some abstract sense, to see weakness punished.) To observe, to critique, to turn the team over in all its dimensions—this was the ideal in the bar. The supporteur’s loyalty was a sign of ignorance. The clear vision of faults, especially when the faults were so clear, was delicious.

Charles de Gaulle liked to tell a story about this famously French disposition. When the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, de Gaulle would say, was marching across southwest Europe on his way to invade Rome, he stopped in Gaul to recruit some much-needed soldiers. After trying this for a while, though, he wrote to his brother Hasdrubal and advised him never to recruit Gauls for his army. “They’re drunkards,” Hannibal wrote. “They’re courageous in battle, bold in combat, but easily discouraged and”—the kicker—“never happy.”

“Let me tell you a secret,” the man who’d waved goodbye to France told me in English. “France sucks.”

* * * * *

The final minutes of the game passed in a daze. The French players fouled the Mexicans viciously and several times booted the ball high into the stands, disgusted with the rules, the boundaries, and the entire situation of the game. But by this time, almost no one in the bar was watching. 

When the game ended, the men stared straight ahead for a while and no one said a word. Then they stood up, gathered their coats, and prepared to leave. “There is no happiness,” the man across from me muttered, his steak frites finished. Two men sitting at the bar whom I’d arranged to meet after the game said they just couldn’t do it right now, so sorry about this, and waved me off. Outside it was nighttime, and I leaned against a car and watched the men leave in groups of two and three. An Italian who spent most afternoons in the bar hurried by. “2-0,” he said. “Son of a bitch.” In France, the acidity directed at the national team draws equally from ironic detachment and real emotional investment. More of the latter, and no one would criticize; more of the former, no one would care.

The men were walking away from the game now, but in a larger sense they were also leaving soccer. In America, soccer is the favored sport of the affluent and the intellectual. Less brutal than football, more graceful than basketball, global in its scope, soccer is taken to be the purest and most cosmopolitan of all the sports we know. But in Le Village soccer carries none of this charm. The team’s disgrace this year only confirmed the men’s sense that soccer has become a study in contemporary decadence. It is the artless game, played by uneducated and overpaid prima donnas and surrounded by a creeping footbusiness. We see soccer as the most European sport, but they see it as the most American, a mass spectacle with a degraded celebrity culture. Things were not always this way. Until 1932 by law, and into the postwar era in practice, soccer was an amateur sport in France. Indeed, the beau jeu, with its fixation on the pure act of the game, most comfortably describes an amateur, not a professional, sport. And in a French culture in which it is impossible to overstate the distaste for money and all that money brings, the hyper-professionalized state of soccer today is grating.

I once made the mistake of telling a man in the bar that I thought soccer was an intellectual sport. “No,” he said flatly. “It’s the least intellectual sport in the world.”

There is also one less principled factor behind the bar’s distaste for soccer. In recent years, more and more of the best French players have been black. In many forms, in many ways, racism was a fact of life in Le Village, especially this year, in discussions about what was wrong with the team. Referring to the many people who blamed its disintegration on the “bad boy” culture of the largely black and Arab housing projects that produced many of France’s soccer stars, a sociology professor and Village regular named Yves Lichtenberger caught the current mood. “The multicultural mix [métissage] that appeared in 1998 as richness,” he said, “now appears as rottenness.” A bartender at Le Village named Alexandre, who immigrated to France from Tunisia five years ago to study biology, told me he had learned to tune out the men’s racism because, he said, if he listened to it he would lose his mind.

The men in the bar don’t jeer. They’re never violent. Most are like Xavier Touzé, a middle-aged father I got to know over the course of many games watched together. Touzé’s first memory of Les Bleus is of the great white midfielder Michel Platini, who played in the 1980s. Touzé spoke in clipped phrases, and with each sentence it seemed he would stop. "I am not such a fan of the team these days,” he said. “The team is very colored. Do you know what I mean? It is black. I am not racist, I am French—you are writing this down, correct? But I just cannot identify with this team." The French brand is an almost guilty racism, more distance than hatred.

The bar was soon empty. In the cold June night, I started to walk down Rue de la Butte aux Cailles back toward the metro. Along the way orange light from the street lamps shimmered on the cobblestone. The patrons from the other bars were still milling about and talking. But the hum from before the game was gone. Les Bleus were not yet out of the tournament, but there was a finality in this defeat that would be hard to overcome. Turning off the street, I was alone now. For better or worse it felt like an ordinary summer night in Paris.


John Samuel Harpham


A version of this essay will appear in Africa's World Cup, forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.

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