Paris St Germain are the current holders of the Coupe de France, the French equivalent of the FA Cup, but they have an easy ride into the final as they only have to play six matches to get there, the first of which is in January. Like the FA Cup, the Coupe de France really begins in the summer and eight rounds are played before the likes of PSG deign to make an appearance. In fact there is also an overseas section that begins as early as May because clubs in the French territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe are also eligible to enter the competition. Today is the troisième tour (third round) of the Coupe de France and Mrs Brooks and I are in the seaside spa town of Balaruc les Bains at the Stade Municipal to see the tie with Clermontaise, who are from the town of Clermont l’Herault, some thirty kilometres to the north west.
Balaruc les Bains sits at the north end of a salt water lagoon, the Bassin de Thau, a kilometre or so across the water from Sète. There is a huge spa (les thermes) in Balaruc, which is something to behold. A massive, sleek, white building like an ocean going liner; from its commodious foyer, two escalators slowly ascend like conveyor belts, carrying mostly elderly, bronzed, French people, some in towelling robes, up to experience various health giving treatments. I found it creepy, it made me think of Logan’s Run and Soylent Green.
The Stade Municipal is in total contrast to les thermes; it’s scruffy and dusty and will soon be full of young life, although like many French small town stadia it’s largely just a football pitch surrounded by a high metal fence.
There is one stand, a concrete platform with three rows of plastic seats bolted onto metal frames. It looks like the original roof has been replaced with new metal sheeting on another metal frame, which obscures the row of the pitch from the front row of seats. We enter the stadium through a wide opening in the back wall and find ourselves in the players tunnel; it’s an entrance that is closed soon afterwards, but it’s not quite two -thirty yet and the game doesn’t kick off until three. A wonky sign points roughly in the direction of the buvette, which is a portakabin style structure with a counter even more wonky than the sign. To the other side of the stand is a dark room with high-up shelves of trophies on two walls and a bar counter;
it smells of stale tobacco. A poster lying on a table shows what’s healthy to eat and what’s not and a timetable shows what time the number three bus leaves on matchdays for the Stade Mosson in Montpellier, the local home of top flight French football.
As the teams and referees warm up on the pitch we wander about seeking the best vantage point from which to watch the match; there doesnt seem to be one. The lowest part of the metal fence is quite closely meshed and there are few places where it is possible to see over it. It’s a bright, warm day, but its also extremely windy; with the wind howling off the Bassin just a couple of hundred metres behind us, we can smell the brine and taste the salt in the air. A group of elderly men have claimed a good spot on a bench in the lee of a high hedge on a small slope; one of them has brought his own folding chair. You can’t beat the experience that comes with age. Behind each goal there is a small outcrop of terracing,
which looks like archaeology; the concrete is even gently patterned like mosaic but it doesn’t really help see over the fence.
Eventually we settle on some rocks strewn about in front of the buvette and the teams line up on the pitch. Balaruc wear an unattractive all-black kit with green trim, which displays no team badge or sponsor’s names. Clermontaise and Balaruc are in the same regional league (Poule A of the Languedoc-Rousillon section of the Occitanie region’s Division Honneur 2 – the seventh level of French football), but Clermontaise look much smarter and ‘professional’ in their all blue kit with badge. The McDonald’s golden arch logo is on the Clermontaise shorts; they can’t have read the poster on the table in the trophy room.
La Clermontaise kick off the match with the Mediterranean Sea at their backs, but proceedings are soon interrupted as the young looking referee Monsieur Yohan Beker is concerned that the strong wind has laid flat the corner flags at the Mediterranean end of the ground. A bloke in a t-shirt and trakkie bottoms is called on to sort them out and once he has done so the game carries on. Early on Clermontaise look the better team, but it might just be because they’re wearing a nicer kit. Just before twenty past three it looks like they have scored, but I can’t tell if it was offside or the shot was missed. There are flattened practice goals either side of the real one and from my rock it’s hard to tell which is which.
La Clermontaise’s number five is the first player to receive what will become a litany of cautions as he appears to knock out the Balaruc number nine, who stays down still, but eventually gets up seemingly none the worse for wear. But any violence on the pitch is as nothing to that developing in front of me as two small girls poke sticks at the dirt between the rocks we are sat upon and end up flicking it at one another with angry stares and increasing ferocity. It is worrying that humans are so unpleasant to one another from such a young age. Balaruc then have a rare attack, but just as the ball is crossed a massive gust of wind blows and carries it off to the far side of the ground.
The Stade Municipal is closely overlooked by four-storey blocks of flats all along one side and partly at both ends; they make quite a dramatic backdrop being so close to the pitch. At one end of the ground small gardens are visible through the boundary fence and I can see one has an interesting collection of gnomes. There are a number of people, mostly men in their sixties and seventies, sat at windows and balconies looking down on the game. I envy them their home comforts, it has to be better than perching like a lizard on a rock in the sun. Dissatisfied with my view sat on the rock, I watch the remainder of the first half standing up.
Just about half an hour has passed since the game began and La Clermontaise are awarded a free kick a little more than twenty metres from goal. The ball is lofted to the near post where the visiting number nine cleverly twists and heads it into the net. La Clermontaise have taken the lead and, better kit or not they deserve to have done so because they look a tad classier than the home team. That touch of extra class is further illustrated as Balaruc respond with a series of petulant fouls. Firstly their number seven hurls himself into a misjudged tackle resulting in a melee of virtually every one on the pitch. At first Monsieur Beker steps in to separate the aggrieved parties, but then he steps back to seemingly allow the teams to sort the matter out for themselves. I have seen a few such incidents in French amateur games and whilst there is usually much fierce debate among the players there is never any real violence; once everyone has had their say Monsieur Beker returns to caution the number seven, award a free kick to La Clermontaise and play on.
Annoyingly the rough approach from Balaruc seems to work and they now have the initiative as the attacking team. A corner is punched away by the orange clad Clermontaise keeper, but the return is instant from the edge of the box as the Balaruc number eleven volleys the ball solidly against the crossbar. The half ends with more brutality as the Clermontaise number six shoves the Balaruc number six and also receives a caution from Monsieur Beker.
The search for a better viewing point resumes at half time with added vigour because the strong wind and warm sun really are taking their toll on our soft, southern English sensibilities. Eventually we find a place at the back of the main stand, leaning on the rear wall against a steel stanchion. It proves to be a good choice and our enjoyment of the second half is much increased by our new location, which is shaded, out of the wind and high enough to see over the fence, with the added bonus of atmosphere as the stand is full; spectating nirvana.
The new half begins with Balaruc on the attack again and their number nine shoots over the crossbar before his opposite number fouls the Balaruc number five, who bawls and stays down on the ground twitching, but eventually gets up and hops away; he was only stunned. Balaruc soon earn a corner, which is quite skillfully worked across the penalty area and fed back to their number nine who curls a shot into the top corner of one of the practice goals squashed up behind the real goal.
Quite a few people seem to have changed their spectating position for the second half and like giant birds on a telephone wire, a row of young lads have perched themselves on the high pink wall behind the Clermontaise keeper and are hanging over the crossbar of one of the practice goals. Other lads sit on a bench, their motorcycle helmets stacked together in front of them like deformed, painted skulls in an ossuary. Some of the people watching from the windows of the flats are no longer there.
It’s a quarter past four and Balaruc’s number four is shown the yellow card for plunging feet first through Clermontaise’s number eleven. A wit in the stand entertains his fellow spectators with what sound like caustic comments about the refereeing; people laugh anyway, which only encourages him. Balaruc might be said to be enjoying most of the possession, but it’s not doing them any good; they are also now ‘enjoying’ most of the bookings too as their eleven hurls himself at his opposite number, who stays down on the ground, as does Balaruc’ s number nine who has fallen down in a separate incident that Monsieur Beker sensibly ignored. Balaruc’s nine looks frustrated and tetchy. At half past four there is a drinks break.
Players are now being substituted freely, keeping the grey-haired, kindly faced and besuited délègue principal Monsieur Gerard Blanchet busy in front of us. Clermontaise’s number twelve confirms his presence by boldly attempting a shot from a thirty metre free kick; of course he misses, but not embarrassingly so. The Balaruc bookings continue and five blatantly kicks the Clermontaise twelve as he dribbles past him and three knocks over his opposite number as they run side by side. All afternoon tbere is a pleasing symmetry with many of the fouls and bookings as players with the same shirt number go for each other.
There are only five minutes left now and whilst Balaruc have been nimble and passed the ball well, they have also been overly physical and not succeeded in making many goal scoring chances at all. Clermontaise have not had much of the ball, but it doesn’t seem to have worried them unduly and I think to myself that they might now just score again and finish the game off. A Balaruc goal kick ends up with the Clermontaise number twelve some thirty plus metres from goal; he runs past a couple of opponents and to the edge of the penalty area; another stride, a check on where the goal is and he strikes the ball across the goalkeeper into the far side of the net.
La Clermontaise go through to the quatrième tour of the Coupe de France. Allez les bleus!
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