The 570 kilometre journey down the A26, A5 and A31 motorways from Calais to the elegant and historic city of Dijon takes a good five hours plus stops, but it’s worth it. The medieval city was the seat of the influential dukes of Burgundy and the modern city is still the regional capital with a population of about 155,000. But that aside, tonight Dijon FCO are playing RC Strasbourg Alsace in Ligue 1 of the French professional football league and I am heading out with my wife Paulene to the Stade Gaston Gerard, to witness it. If I hang out of the window of our hotel room in I can see the stadium and the lights are already on.
It’s been a day of gusty wind, sunshine and showers, of cafes and bars and the tombs of dead dukes and duchesses. We have pre-purchased our joint ticket for the tram (5.60 euros for two journeys each) and are at Place Darcy in the shadow of Dijon’s triumphal arch, the Porte Guillaume, ready to ride out to the Parc des Sports wherein lies Gaston Gerard’s eponymous football stadium. Gaston Gerard incidentally was mayor of Dijon from 1919 to 1935 and later a member of the French government. But there is a problem, we want to catch a T1 tram in the direction of Quetigny but it seems they are not running the length of the line due to a ‘perturbation’. We could catch the T2 and then walk to Auditorium to catch a T1, but the helpful man at the tram stop, who works for the transport company Divia, advises us to cross the road and catch the number five bus to Université, and then catch a T1 tram from there, so that’s what we do. The bus soon arrives and with our ticket validated we are soon out of the city centre travelling through anonymous looking early evening streets in a bright pink, 18m long Heuliez articulated bus. From the end of the bus route the tram stop is just around the corner on a windswept, open part of the university campus, but a tram arrives within a few minutes, almost as if the public transport services were somehow co-ordinated; we know from living in England however that such a thing is just not possible. From the university it is just three stops to the Parc des Sports tram stop, which is but a nonnette de Dijon’s throw from the Parc des Sports itself.
A man in a ‘gilet orange’ checks our tickets and ushers us through the gate and into what seems like a leafy suburban park. We follow a trail down between the trees; there are tennis courts off to our right, we round a couple of bends and then the stadium is before us. Three sides of the Stade Gaston Gerard have been re-built this century, the remaining part of the original stadium has its back to us; it’s a neat, classical looking concrete structure which dates from 1934 and is quite typical of pre-war French municipal buildings; it’s got style; it’s a bit Art Deco. Over a fence there is a glimpse of the blue Strasbourg team bus.
We walk on and pass through the turnstiles which read our bar-coded tickets before we are patted down and wished “bon match”. It amuses me that Paulene seems to be searched more thoroughly than I am, but then the French have a history of female villains; Madame Defarge, Madame Thenardier, Marine Le Pen. At the back of the Tribune Sud (south stand), which is built into the hillside behind the goal, a couple of blokes who look a bit old to be Ultras are unfolding a tifosi banner in the form of a huge Dijon home shirt. I half expect to see them plugging in an especially large iron.
Our tickets (24 euros each) are in the top tier of the east stand at the side of the pitch, so we keep on walking, on past the ‘Le Bon Sucre’ stall selling crepes, gauffres and beignets, and bizarrely decorated with the figure of a busty woman, posed with her mouth slightly open and about to lick a dollop of cream from her finger. France can be oddly schizophrenic with regard to women; seemingly ahead of Britain in the use of female football presenters and commentators and in appreciating women’s football, but still displaying the same casual sexism of the 1930’s when Gaston Gerard’s wife Reine impressed a well-regarded critic and gastronome with a new chicken dish, which thereafter became known as Chicken Gaston Gerard after her husband, not her.
Resisting the temptations of le Bon Sucre we walk on beneath the Tribune Caisse D’Epargne as it is known thanks to sponsorship from the bank of that name, where we cannot resist the lure of the club shop.
Thankfully Dijon FCO do not have their own brand of mustard, and sadly their T-shirts don’t appeal so we restrict our purchases to a petit fanion (5 euros) to add to the collection in the upstairs toilet, a bear in a red and white scarf (10 euros) for Paulene’s cupboard of football related cuddly toys and a bib (6.50 euros) for the new grandson Jackson, because he needs more bibs. Leaving the shop we pass by one of the buvettes, from which people are leaving with the best looking chips I have ever seen at a football ground, proper big chunky ones. I collect a couple of the free match day programmes, which are actually more like 12 page newspapers, but they tell us all we need to know, listing the squads, tonight’s other fixtures and the up to date league table.
Our seats, we learn, are in the top tier of the stand; it’s been a bit of a walk from the tram stop and Paulene’s asthma means she’s not feeling up to climbing two or three flights of stairs so I ask one of the many young women in gilets oranges if there is a lift. I am directed to a man in a blue jacket with the words Besoin d’aide? (Need help?) printed on the back; he asks us to follow him and having led us into a room from which he collects a set of keys he unlocks a white door hidden within the white walls of the concourse beneath the stand. The blue jacketed man leads us down a long white corridor and round a corner, part of a hidden labyrinth within the stand; I think to myself that this is what near death experiences are supposed to be like. The man then unlocks what seems like a secret compartment, but is in fact a lift, which takes us to an open concourse at the back of the top tier of the stand. We thank the man but not before he shows us to our seats; what a helpful bloke. From each seat projects a red flag at 45 degrees which bears the Dijon FCO club crest; it doesn’t do to sit down in a hurry; it could be painful. We are in the second row at the front of the top tier and have a fine view of the pitch, but also, over the top of the stand opposite, a panorama of Dijon stretches out with an array of towers and spires, like a Gallic version of Oxford. Beyond the city, rolling hills and forests.
There is a still a while until kick-off so I return to the open concourse for some drinks, returning with a cup of orange Fanta for Paulene and a small beer for me (7 euros for the two). Both drinks are in re-usable plastic cups which celebrate Dijon FCO’s twentieth anniversary; Dijon had a club dating back to 1913 (Cercle Laique Dijonnais) but it remained resolutely amateur, like my own beloved Ipswich Town did unti 1936, before merging with Dijon FC in 1998 and the new club eventually turned professional in 2004. Looking north-east from the back of the stand the sky is a menacing grey and in the distance it is clearly raining; a strong gusty wind is blowing it towards us, something wicked this way comes, but more probably something wet. Walking back to my seat I begin to regret not having noticed until I had ordered beer and fanta that I could have had a cup of the vin chaud (2.50 euros). The rain arrives in the form of stair rods, it is spectacular and I am thankful I am not in the Tribune Sud into which the wind is blowing, or on the open terrace opposite where an increasing and impressive following of Strasbourg supporters are gathering and getting soaked. The deluge is mercifully brief and heads off into the hills of Burgundy leaving the fading evening sunlight to glisten and reflect off the roof tops of the city.
As kick-off approaches the public address system pumps out loud euro-pop, the teams are announced, their faces looming in technicolour on the scoreboard. That tifosi shirt ripples across the lower tier of the Tribune Sud; the Lingon’s Boys Ultras at the north end hang out their banners. The best display however is from the Racing Club Strasbourg supporters who celebrate making the 330 kilometre journey by waving white flags around a central blue cross with the letter RCS in the centre of that. All around there is noise from the crowd of 13,105 and then the teams enter the pitch through a colonnade of giant Roman candles as the Ligue 1 theme tune plays over the public address system and everyone waves their red Dijon flags, me included; one of the many things they know how to do in France is put on a show and give everyone a free flag.
After handshakes and huddles the game begins with Dijon all in red and the words “Roger Martin” emblazoned across their chests, a sentiment I heartily agree with. Strasbourg unnecessarily wear all- white; their ‘proper’ signature kit of blue shirts with white shorts would not clash with Dijon’s home strip. Dijon are playing towards the Lingon’s Boys, with Strasbourg aiming in the direction of the Tribune Sud. It’s the 36th journee of the 38 game season and Dijon are struggling in 19th place in the twenty team league. Strasbourg are mid-table (10th) and have every right to feel smug and relaxed having qualified for the Europa League by winning the Coupe de La Ligue against En Avant Guingamp, the team bottom in Ligue 1, who by the end of tomorrow afternoon are destined to be relegated to Ligue 2.
Dijon are more eager because they have more at stake and they have the first shot on goal, from 39 year old Florent Balmont, a marvellous if unexciting, mostly defensive midfield player who simply keeps the team ticking over like a sort of bald-headed human, metronome. Paulene and I reminisce about seeing him play a much more dynamic game for Lille against Copenhagen in a Champions League qualifier back in 2012. This game is not dynamic. Dijon struggle to play accurately whilst Strasbourg’s season has already finished, and they appear to lack motivation. Lacking inspiration from the football I enjoy the architecture of the three re-built sides of the stadium; three individual stands linked by an arching, curving translucent roof; architect Michel Rémon has done a fine job and I get to thinking what self-respecting architect would put his name to the breeze block and tin sheet constructions that pass for provincial football stadia in England.
With only fourteen minutes played Florent Balmont is cautioned by referee Monsieur Hakim Ben El Hadj for complaining too vociferously when a free-kick is awarded against a team mate. Dijon are ponderous and what shots on goal there are, are blocked or wide and no one looks much like scoring, that is until five minutes before half-time. Tunisian international Naim Sliti pursues another mis-placed pass inside the penalty area, it’s running away from the goal towards the corner flag but somehow the chasing defender manages to clip Sliti’s heels, he goes down and Monsieur Ben El Hadj awards a penalty. Paulene thinks it’s a bit harsh, suggesting that Sliti was moving so slowly towards the ball that the chasing defender, Adrien Thomasson, just caught up with him sooner than expected. Monsieur Ben El Hadj ignores her pleas and Dijon’s Cape Verde international Julio Tavares gets the glory, booting the ball beyond the dive of Strasbourg’s Belgian goal keeper Matz Sels into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal; Stade Gaston-Gerard is rocking all the way to mi-temps (half-time).
I make use of the break to use the facilities but haven’t got the will to wait at the buvette for another drink; I return to my seat and zip up my wind-cheater against the evening chill. Small boys take part in a shoot-out and I feel very sorry for a particularly ungainly looking one whose control is so poor that the goalkeeper has claimed the ball before he even shoots, you just know he gets picked last in the playground.
The second half begins and Strasbourg are re-vitalised by their half-time espresso and now look much more interested, whilst Dijon are no better than before. But time moves on, it gets dark and still Dijon lead but their Icelandic goalkeeper Runar Runarsson is busy, running off his line and making saves. A corner from Strasbourg’s fabulously monikered Kenny Lala is sent goalwards by the Bosnian Stefan Mitrovic, the header is blocked by Dijon’s Roman Amalfitano but rebounds to Ludovic Ajorque who has a simple ‘tap-in’ to equalise. As Strasbourg celebrate a pall of gloom falls over most of Stade Gaston-Gerard. Runarsson is called to make further saves from Thomasson, Da Costa and Goncalves, and Dijon manager Antoine Kombouare seems to be facing the prospect of both the Ligue 1 clubs he has managed this season being relegated; he was given the Dijon job in January having been sacked by Guingamp in November.
I like Antoine Kombouare, he has a kindly face and previously managed Strasbourg, Lens and Paris Saint-Germain, where he was sacked when they were top of the league. He looks on impassively in his grey suit and baseball hat. With 15 minutes left Kombouare acts and replaces Florent Balmont with the Korean Kwon Chang-Hoon. Balmont takes his place on the bench to great applause from the Dijonnais, he doesn’t look happy, not because he’s been substituted but because of how the game is going.
Kombouare’s decision makes a difference however as Kwon seems to have far more energy than the rest of his team put together; he darts about, running at the Strasbourg defence and shooting on sight, he energises the crowd. But despite his efforts nobody scores for Dijon, although Ludovic Ajorque is prompted to even up the scores for yellow cards. The ninetieth minute arrives and leaves; five minutes time added-on will be played and the home crowd urge their team on. Dijon have to win to have a chance of avoiding relegation, their main rivals Caen are beating Reims 3-2. If they lose Dijon will be five points behind with two games left, one of which is away to Paris Saint-Germain. It’s the ninety third minute, Tavares has the ball, it runs on to Kwon in the centre of the penalty area, he takes a step and lashes the ball magnificently into the net past Sels. Kwon is engulfed by blokes in red shirts and in the stands everyone is on their feet cheering. This is the way to win a football match, be ropey for ninety minutes and then get a last minute winner. In the following day’s local paper “Le Bien Public” the game will be marked as a five out of ten, although the national sports paper L’Equipe will give it four stars out of six. The stats will show that Dijon had fewer shots, fewer corners, less possession, won fewer duels and fewer tackles, made fewer passes and interceptions and their passes were less accurate. What the stats cannot show however is that they never stopped believing they could win.
The full-time whistle soon follows and as we applaud the teams a man in a blue jacket appears from nowhere to take us back to the lift. Paulene would be fine going down the stairs, but is mightily impressed that she has been remembered. We are joined by two older men with gammy legs; the man in the blue jacket pushes the button on the lift control panel marked “-1” and leaves us. One of the older men clearly thinks he knows better and pushes the button marked “0”; the lift descends and the doors open onto a darkened cupboard. Fortunately the doors close again and we complete our descent, and having negotiated a long white corridor find ourselves back in the concourse beneath the stand from where we step out into the night and stroll back to the tram stop. Riding back into town on the packed tram I feel like Albert Camus in Algiers. I love going to football matches in France.