AS Béziers 1 Red Star 0

My return to the Stade de Sauclières in Béziers is an important one because of the toilets.20170908_184645.jpg After the Dunkerque match I had e-mailed AS Béziers about the state of them. The club secretary replied telling me that the Ville de Béziers, the Borough Council, was responsible for this because it was their stadium and my e-mail had been forwarded on to them. I then received an e-mail from Monsieur Pintavy in the sports department of the mayor’s office telling me that they would do the necessary work before the next fixture.
So it is with a mission in mind that we arrive at the semi-rural setting of the Stade de Sauclières a little more than an hour before kick-off; but whereas on our previous visit it had been possible to park almost in front of the guichets, tonight there is a traffic jam outside the stadium, with cars parked all along the road and on the dusty, untended pitch that is behind one end of the stadium. Children and youths of both sexes in blue and white track suits are everywhere, along with their mums and dads who are wearing ordinary clothes. Parking our car on the roadside verge a good 250 metres up the road we make our way back to the stadium gates through the chatty, happy but mostly dawdling young French people. Fortunately, everyone has complimentary tickets so we don’t have to queue to pay our 10 Euros each at the guichets; only to be patted down on our way into the stadium. It is a cooler evening than when we were last here a fortnight ago and I am therefore wearing trousers instead of shorts and so never find out if it really is the local security policy to pat down bare legs. I don’t see the young man who had done this a fortnight ago; perhaps someone had complained. It wasn’t me, I only e-mailed about the toilets.
Once inside the stadium precincts we round the corner beneath a floodlight pylon and approach the toilets towards the rear of the main stand; now within a few metres of the door the fresh smell of pine toilet duck wafts alluringly towards us, the now opened door reveals the gleam of bright, white porcelain. Monsieur Pontavy and “Béziers Borough Council” sports department are true to their word, the system works, as I’m sure would the cistern if there was one. Vive La France!
I hang around outside the toilet whilst my wife uses it; this is because although the toilet is clean, the lock on the door doesn’t work. We then prepare to go up into the stand, but not before I notice that the stadium backs on to the River OrbOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA; there is a large white sign with red letters on the bank that spells danger. The Canal du Midi is over the road opposite the guichets and so it turns out the Stade de Sauclières is actually on an island or at least an isthmus. We go up into the stand and observe that all those French children in blue and white tracksuits are now sat on the terrace behind the goal by the entrance. Meanwhile, I wonder to myself if there is a club shop because I have developed a desire for a souvenir. In faltering French I ask a bloke in a hi-vis tabard who tells me there is one under the stand, but it’s not open now. I ask if it is open at “mi-temp” and quickly and smilingly he says his first words to me in English “Half-time? No”. It seems these are the only English words he knows; how odd. I return to my seat, but then decide to go and see for myself and it turns out that souvenirs are on sale at the buvette, although not all the staff, even in the buvette, seem to know this. Eventually, I come away with a petit fanion (pennant) for the somewhat inflated price of 7 euros (bloody Brexit!), but it’ll look nice hanging with the others in the spare toilet at home.
Flushed with success I return to my wife and my seat to await the start of the match. The track-suited children are now in the centre of the pitch and are lining up for a photograph. It turns out AS Béziers have organised a special night for all their youth and children’s teams of which there seem to be quite a number.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Clearly, AS Béziers has a firm place in the community of the town and tonight they are celebrating it. Why have I never witnessed such a thing at an English Football League club? Perhaps I haven’t been anywhere on the right day.
I have been looking forward to this match for several weeks because Bezier’s opponents tonight are Red Star, an almost legendary French club. Red Star is France’s second oldest club, founded in 1897 by none other than Monsieur Jules Rimet himself, the man after whom the World Cup trophy was named. The club is from the Paris suburb of Saint Ouen, the former docks area of the French capital. The club has a rich heritage and is known for its politically left-wing support, which has a strong anti-fascist stance. The club also has a really good badge; a red star inside a green circle. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine my horror therefore when the Red Star players walk out onto the pitch wearing yellow shirts and green shorts, the colours of Norwich City. Happily, the kit isn’t theirs, but is a spare AS Béziers kit; although it isn’t clear why they needed to wear it as their usual green shirts and white shorts would not clash with AS Béziers’ all blue kit. Would they?
A cocktail of smells assaults our nostrils as the stand fills up; a mixture of Gitanes, perfumes and salt and vinegar. The game begins and referee Monsieur Cedric Dos Santos is soon explaining to Béziers’ number 21 that fouls are wrong, although the first player to be booked is Red Star’s number 12. Things then only get worse as a punt forward bypasses the Red Star defenders and Beziers’ number 17 pokes the ball past the only player in a Red Star shirt, albeit a day-glo orange one, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfrom a spot close to the one called penalty. The Bezier’s supporters at the other end of the stand sing something to the tune of Yellow Submarine, the last three words of which are Allez, Allez, Allez.
There are only five or six Red Star supporters here tonight but two of them are very vocal with shouts of “Allez Red Star” and plenty of clapping too; they have a small banner which proclaims “Gang Green” one of the Red Star ultras groups.

After going behind, Red Star increasingly look the better team, they have more skill and they win a remarkable succession of free-kicks all down the left flank. But the Red Star goalkeeper does also make one spectacular flying catch, a replica of one I saw Ipswich Town’s David Best make in about 1973 and which has stayed with me all these years.
Half-time comes and goes and Red Star get even better in the second half, but they don’t score. Some of their players are displaying wonderful levels of skill for a semi-professional team, everywhere there are flicks and dinks; the number eleven crosses the ball beautifully with the outside of his right foot. But they don’t defend as well and as AS Béziers’ number 17 chases a punt forward, the Red Star 29 chases him and sort of rolls into him. Monsieur Dos Santos awards a free-kick and cautions 29 for a second time resulting in his being sent-off. I usually like to see players in yellow and green sent off, but not tonight.
The imbalance in player numbers makes the task harder for Red Star but they continue to be the far more skilful team, whilst AS Béziers are big and physical and play on the break and by falling over when tackled. The Gang Green retain their faith with chants of “Come On l’etoile, Come On l’etoile” to the tune of Auld’s Lang Syne, adding Scottish into the strangely random mix of English and French that characterises their club.
In odd moments where the action stops as players play dead and Monsieur Dos Santos waves his yellow card about I notice that there are some massive insects fluttering about in the beams of the floodlights tonight, although it is also possible that there are some very small bats; but I’m not Chris Packham.
Red Star’s number 2 makes a brilliant run down the left and pulls the ball back only for the goalkeeper to make a spectacular save and then the Red Star ‘keeper pushes away a header, diving down low to his right in equally thrilling fashion. But it doesn’t look like Red Star will equalise, although they probably deserve to win. A second booking for AS Béziers’ number 29 comes too late to even things up sufficiently in terms of player numbers and despite a clearance off the line in time added-on the home team claim the points; their trainer jabs the air in front of him in that odd way football people do as if they can’t quite work out the difference between happiness and anger.
I feel quite deflated. This is Red Star’s first defeat of the season and I had hoped to see them win, but instead I’ve seen them play in yellow and green, have a player sent off and lose. Football, like the sea, is a cruel mistress. The Gang Green pack up their banner and move down to the steel fence around the pitch to applaud their team and we head off up the Chemin Moulin Neuf and back to our car, disappointed but pleased to have had good value for the meagre 10 Euro admission fee and to have seen French local government in action.

AS Béziers 0 USL Dunkerque 0

The roadtrip from Marseillan on the coast to Béziers takes about thirty five minutes; it’s Friday evening and the roads are busy with people going home from work and others heading for the coast for le weekend. Generally however, we seem to be travelling in the right direction because it’s not quite so busy; it’s just a shame more people aren’t on their way to tonight’s match in the Ligue National at the Stade de Sauclieres in Béziers.  Then again, it is only half-past six and the game won’t start until eight.

The stadium is on the edge of the ancient town, beyond the railway tracks and the River Orb; our final approach is down rough riverside roads lined with massive plane trees whose boughs arch over it both beautifully and a little threateningly. There is a large concrete framed red brick factory for a valve manufacturer (Cameron’s) from which a railway runs out across the road and over the river via a metal lifting bridge squeezed between the trees. Factories in rural settings are another of so many things the French do well.

Having negotiated a roundabout decorated with a large steel valve we see the stadium looming up on our left, although it doesn’t look so much like a stadium as a castle wall,20170908_183641.jpg minus crenellations. I swing the car round to park at an angle between the road and the high grey wall. We walk in the road past the ends of other parked cars to the main entrance to the stadium. There’s no one much about, just a few Dunkerque fans waiting around outside and they are outnumbered by the security people; hefty blokes in navy blue uniforms and one blonde and not at all hefty woman. The guichets (ticket booths), which look like arrows might be fired from them, are not open yet, but soon one does open and once the bearded man inside has finished his conversation with someone who remains invisible to us from the outside, I hand over €20 for two tickets, children are admitted free, but we haven’t brought any of those with us.

Before entering the ground we are frisked by security. A tall stocky bloke in his late twenties asks me to spread my arms out. It’s been a warm day and it’s a warm evening and I can smell his stale deodorant as he pats down my t-shirt and shorts and then bizarrely my bare legs. I laugh, but not because it tickles. What did he suspect I would be concealing amongst the hairs on my legs? Perhaps he was checking for flares.

We walk on into the stadium through the car park, behind another high grey stone wall. A sign warns not to park under the trees when the wind is strong. We reach the corner of the stadium where there are two buvettes, a large one serving drinks and a gazebo serving chips and baguettes. Payment is by plastic orange jetons (tokens) which cost a euro each. I buy two jetons and exchange them for two bottles of water. There is an area reserved for ‘VIP’s’ behind the main stand which is fenced off from the hoi polloi. The main stand 20170908_184900.jpgis the only stand, a tall steel and concrete structure with a steep pitched roof. There are eighteen stanchions (I counted them) evenly spaced along the stand supporting a network of struts that in turn support the roof. The other three sides of the ground consist of wide sweeping terraces

closed off from use behind chain-link and Heras fencing.  It’s nevertheless an impressive arena, evocative of a bygone era, but still acceptable (with the exception of the toilets) in the context of a club that draws crowds of no more than a couple of thousand. It’s a pity at least some of the terrace behind the goal is not open however.

The stand fills up as kick-off approaches and we play ‘Spot the Wag’ as a number of slender women with perfect hair and makeup totter up the stands in tight trousers. Between her dad and her mum a little girl clutches a Barbie doll, still in its box.   The banners of the two clubs and the Ligue National are trotted out onto the pitch by six young lads20170908_195621.jpg who turn and face the stand and wait a good five minutes for the teams to appear. Meanwhile the pitch sprinklers briefly come on, first in one half, then in the other, making the boys squirm and laugh as they get wet. The public address system stutters into life as the teams are announced in the style of a French Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies. The small band of ultras, the Kop Biterrois20170908_185050.jpg , whose logo seems to be a monkey in a hat and sunglasses, are at the end of the stand and one of them beats a drum. After a minute’s silence the referee Monsieur Benjamin Lepaysant begins the match and AS Béziers kick -off towards the Cameron’s factory end of the ground. Straight from the kick- off we are treated to a cameo of how the match will pan out as Béziers indelicately boot the ball toward the Dunkerque goal, where the visiting full-back heads it weakly back to his goalkeeper, but it spins out comically for a corner to Béziers.

The Dunkerque number six, who sports Zlatan Ibrahimovic-style hair, looks quite good as he plays a couple of difficult but accurate passes and then makes a surging run forward from the back. After that however, he seems to be singled out by Béziers as a threat and is left in a heap a couple of times before he begins to feature less. Béziers’ wide players make runs forward and cross the ball to no one in particular and a Dunkerque forward shoots wildly over the crossbar and the game settles down to something less than mediocrity. At times the gaggle of ten to twelve year-olds kicking a ball about on the cinder track in front of the stand play no less entertainingly.

My wife says she sees a bat fly under the eaves of the stand, I say I think I see one too, but she claims mine was just a dragonfly or large moth. I watch the coaches of the two teams; the Dunkerque coach wears a t-shirt and jeans and has glasses and floppy hair, he looks and moves a bit like Jurgen Klopp, bouncing about the technical area, folding and unfolding his arms. The Béziers coach squats at the corner of his technical area and rises slowly, he is clearly suffering from some sort of an injury, perhaps to his hip, and he walks stiffly; I think I catch him looking enviously at his lithe opposite number.

The first yellow card of the game is shown after thirty-two minutes to Béziers’ number seventeen who has left the Dunkerque number six on the grass nursing his jaw. Nine minutes later some of the crowd, other than just the ultras raise some enthusiasm as Béziers’ win a free-kick and rythmic clapping to a 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4 pattern, followed by a shout of “Béziers!” is heard. It’s a false alarm however, as the free kick is easily caught by the goalkeeper’s grandmother.

The clock at the end of the ground shows just forty-four minutes played, but half-time is called as Monsieur Lepaysant says enough is enough. A human tide flows to the buvette and the toilets, which my wife joins only to return after the match restarts with a terrible memory of perhaps the most unsanitary khazi20170908_184645.jpg she has ever had the misfortune to visit. Worse than the North Stand toilets at Fratton Park back in the early 1970’s apparently, and no wash basin. A French girl refused to enter one cubicle. I hear the half-time scores from the other Ligue National matches over the echoing tannoy and I might be wrong, but it sounds like they are all nil-nil. I like to think they are.

Béziers begin the new half with a flourish as their number three folds in a deep curving cross; their number twenty one reaches it but cannot direct the ball at the goal. The mediocrity returns and my attention is won by a surreal sight at the top of the long, empty terrace opposite the main stand, 20170908_200252.jpg where a man is sitting at a desk.  I can only assume that this is the location for the Délègue Principal for this game, Monsieur Roger Lefebvre;20170908_200306.jpgnevertheless, I cannot help imagining my vision zooming in on him whereupon he looks up and says “…and now for something completely different”.

I think some of the problem with this match is the team kits; Béziers in their weird all aquamarine coloured kit look like the away side and Dunkerque in red and white stripes with red shorts and socks look like a plausible home team. Why that should be a problem I don’t really know, but it just doesn’t seem right. Another Béziers player is booked (number 19) after sixty two minutes, but two minutes after that they should score as a fine move, which seems to unfold in slow motion before our very eyes ends, as we knew it would, with the Béziers number nine heading over the cross bar as he seemingly attempts to not let the ball smack his forehead too hard. With twenty-three minutes remaining, Béziers’ number twenty-five performs a very smart turn indeed, before trickling the weakest shot imaginable a metre wide of the goal. Ten minutes later he surpasses this as he receives a low cross on the edge of the penalty area, controls, deftly makes a yard of space, and then completely misses the ball as he goes to shoot. Continuing this rich vein of form he then ends a rare decent flowing move with what looks like an aimless swing at the ball disguised as a terrible lofted pass, before hobbling away to conceal his embarrassment. But it’s been that kind of a match; the players have not necessarily been particularily bad, it’s just that the ball won’t do what they want it to.

Just before the three minutes of added-on time is actually added on, Béziers’ number ten heads the ball directly into the arms of the Dunkerque goalkeeper and then in added time Dunkerque twice cause confusion close to the Béziers’ goal, but are as confused about where the ball is as Béziers.

Sadly this game hasn’t turned out to be a particularily good advertisement for the third tier of French football or its toilets. Nevertheless, it has been a beautiful warm evening in a lovely evocative setting and I wouldn’t have missed it for much.

NEWS! After the game I emailed AS Beziers to ask if they  would clean the toilets in time for the next match. They replied to say that as the stadium belonged to the town of Beziers it was the local authorities responsibility; but they had in turn written to La Ville de Beziers asking them to follow up the matter. I later received an email from La Ville de Beziers letting me know they would be cleaning the toilets.