I am on holiday and travelling with my wife down through France to Marseillan Plage in the Hérault département. Careful research has turned up the good news that we can take in a football match en route. The match is a league game between Uchaud and Carcassonne in the Languedoc – Roussillon section of the Occitanie region’s Division Honneur; the sixth level of French football.
It is now about half past one and we have stopped at an ‘aire’ on the A9 motorway just a few miles from Nimes; with a half hour stop for lunch we will still make it to the Stade Municipal in Uchaud with time to take in the ambience before kick off at 3pm. As we lay out our lunch on a concrete picnic table, a lady about our own age asks if she can share the table with us; being nice people, and in the interests of the entente cordiale, we agree and she joins us with her daughter, who is mentally handicapped. Through a winning combination of our useless French and her slightly less useless English we converse. She is a lovely, friendly ladywith a kind, smiling face and with her daughter Gladys ( a name that sounds much better in French; Gladeece not Gladiss) is on her way from their home in Grenoble for a week’s holiday at Grau du Roi, at a centre that provides holidays for handicapped people and their carers. Gladys, a pretty, joyful young woman, who today wears a large pink flower in her dark hair, is now twenty-nine years old and her mother has brought her up and looked after her on her own all that time. From Monday to Wednesday Gladys now lives in a home, but for the remainder of the week with her mum. Having eaten lunch, we say goodbye wishing each other bons vacances; we feel a mixture of sadness and humility but also great happiness to have met Gladys and her mum as we set off back onto the motorway towards Nimes and then Uchaud.
Uchaud is a very small town about 8 miles south west of Nimes on the D113, which was the main road between Nimes and Montpellier before the A7 motorway was built. The D113 follows the route of the old Roma road, the Via Domitia. Uchaud is typical of such French towns, appearing to be just two rows of mostly slightly scruffy two and three-storey buildings either side of the road, although in truth it does spread out a little beyond. According to Wikipedia, in 2014 Uchaud had a population of 4,230.
Just past the very centre of the town we turn off to the left down the Rue Jean Moulin which takes us over the motorway; to the right we see a set of floodlights and then we turn right down the Chemin des Poissoniers. Easing our Citroen C3 between a pair of concrete posts scarred by generations of other Citroens, Renaults, Peugeots and probably Simcas that were less expertly driven, we enter the unsurfaced car park of the Stade Municipal and come to rest beneath the welcome shade of a plane tree. It’s about twenty-five to three.
The Stade Municipal is not much more than a football pitch bounded by a high chain-linked fence. There is a changing room block and buvette (refreshment stall or buffet) at one end of the ground and a tiny, open, metal ‘grandstand’ which has a capacity of about a dozen people. Otherwise there are just a couple of large rocks and two benches on which to sit and watch the match. The floodlights we saw belong to the neighbouring rugby club. On the opposite side of the ground by the half-way line are the dugouts, including a one-man dugout for the délègue principal, who oversees the whole staging of the match; today’s délègue principal is Monsieur Alain Mistral. He is the only person wearing a suit, although he has taken his jacket off because of the heat. Along this side of the ground runs a low grassy bank with a few young trees on top; a row of rhododendrons punctuate the side of the ground where the benches, rocks and grandstand are, although sadly by now most of their deep red blooms have died off. Such decorative plants are sadly lacking at most English football grounds.
It is free to watch games at this level in France and the players are amateurs playing for the love of the game, so there is no turnstile and we just pass through a metal gate and head for the buvette. The teams are already on the pitch and we ask two gentlemen of retirement age which is which. Uchaud are in all green whilst Carcassonne wear red and blue stripes with blue shorts in the style of Barcelona or, seeing as this is France, Stade Malherbe de Caen. Perhaps confused by my ‘Allez les Bleus’ t-shirt, the gentlemen ask who we are supporting; it seems rude not to support the home team, but I explain that back in England my team is Ipswich (‘les bleus’ of my t-shirt), and my wife adds that she follows Portsmouth; the Frenchmen are Marseilles fans. At the buvette we buy two filter coffees (one euro each); there’s none of your instant rubbish here. We walk about a bit and explore before eventually settling down on one of the rocks in time for kick off, which is slightly delayed because one of the assistant referees seems to be having a bit of trouble inspecting the goal net at the buvette end of the ground. But eventually we hear an electronic beep which signifies that the referee (Monsieur Boris Gil) has synchronised his watch with his assistants (Monsieurs Laurent Mazauric and Anthony Chaptal) and the game begins.
Carcassonne kick off defending the town and motorway end of the ground and kicking in the general direction of the Camargue and Mediterranean Sea. I am quickly struck by the total absence of any tattooed forearms on any of the twenty-two players, something that is completely unthinkable in England. There are plenty of the ubiquitous beards, but not one tattoo, although the Uchaud number eleven, who bears a passing resemblance to the former Bastia and Lille full-back Julien Palmieri, does wear a bandage on his left forearm. Could it be a tattoo that went horribly wrong? Does he have a tattoo but covers it up because no one else has one? Do tattoos remain the preserve of convicts in southern France?
The pace of the game is quick, which is surprising given that it is a warm afternoon with a temperature of a good 25 or 26 degrees, but nevertheless it takes more then five minutes for the first shot on goal, from Uchaud, and then another ten minutes before the next one, from Carcassonne; both shots are from angles, across the face of goal. Uchaud have an uncharacteristically solid, English looking centre half at number four, whilst as well as having a Julien Palmieri lookalike at number eleven, their number six bears a disturbing resemblance to former French international and alleged sex-tape starlet Matthieu Valbuena.
The match is quite absorbing even though there are very few attempts on goal, but we still find time to notice that the badge on the shirt of the assistant referee appears to be attached with velcro; his shirt, shorts and socks all look brand new as if this is their first outing; he’s like an outsized boy on his first day at school. Carcassonne look the slightly more accomplished team and have more forays forward, but Uchaud are well organised and in Palmieri (who the rest of the team call Kevin), Valbuena and their captain they have three players who stand out for their skill and good positional sense; their goalkeeper contributes too with his constant calls of “parlez vous” (talk) and “garde” (keep it) as well as the odd catch from a cross. Carcassonne finish the half with a flourish winning the game’s first corner and then seeing their number three place a free-kick carefully over the angle of post and crossbar, before their dreadlocked number eleven runs in behind the Uchaud defence only to hit a low shot beyond the far post.
Half – time, or mi – temps as the French would have it brings a return to the buvette for a bottle of water (one euro) and a wander to the far side of the ground to view the second half from a different perspective. There are plenty of people stretched out on the grassy bank and it brings to mind a football spectating version of Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche après – midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte” (a Sunday afternoon at the island of Grand Jatte). There are no advertising hoardings, no programme and no team sheets to amuse us today so we have to talk. Of course, being a conversation with my wife I dont recall anything she says to me, although we do wonder how many people are here watching the game and decide there are at least 120, not including the people who have parked their cars right next to the fence and are watching from behind the wheel.
As the second half begins we too sit down on the grassy bank, but despite the warmth of the day the grass feels a bit damp and it seems likely that the bank has benefited from some ‘fall-out’ from the watering of the pitch, which is in pretty good condition given that the summers in these parts are on the hotter side of scorching. We don’t move however before the Uchaud goalkeeper misses a punch and has to rely on one of his full-backs to clear the ball for a corner. Carcassonne’s number two then has a yellow card waved at him by Monsiour Gil for roughly tackling Uchaud’s number ten and captain.
Now watching the game from behind the goal, the second half is slower than the first and not quite as good as some of the players start to rely a little more on breaking the game up, some by appealing for fouls, others by committing them. With twenty minutes to go there is a very quick drinks break, soon followed by Uchaud’s first corner, which is won by their young substitute wearing the number thirteen shirt. Heading into the final ten minutes Carcassone’s number seven is booked and not that suprisingly because he has been consistently overplaying the “who, me ref?” role for some time, whilst also provoking a series of complaints from the Uchaud players and coaches.
Despite Carcassonne’s less than always sporting approach, my wife and I agree that they look a little more likely to score because they seem just a little bit sharper. Seconds later the Uchaud number thirteen turns and lofts a diagonal cross to the corner of the Carcassonne penalty area where Uchaud’s number two controls and shoots across the alice – band wearing goalkeeper towards the far post. The Carcassonne number six runs back and attempts to clear his opponent’s shot off the line, but both he and the ball merely combine to bulge the net as Uchaud take the lead to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Carcassonne do not now seriously look like scoring an equaliser and only succeed in using up a bit more of the ink in Monsiour Gil’s biro or the lead in his pencil, as their number nine becomes the third player to be cautioned.
With the final whistle, there is a very small ripple of applause, which quickly dissipates and the crowd depart whilst we safely negotiate the perilous posts at the entrance to the the car park and are once again on our way south. It’s been an entertaining afternoon in the sun, in surroundings reminiscent of step six of the English non league, but with football of a slightly better standard and better coffee.