The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, April 06, 2007

"You Call This a Soccer Riot?"

I've probably mentioned this before, but the local soccer team, Olympique Lyonnais (OL), is kind of a big deal here. Despite having historically been a mediocre club, without the cachet or history of Paris St. Germain (PSG) or Olympique Marseille, they've won 5 straight French-league titles and may have clinched a sixth by the time you read this. Think 1990s Chicago Bulls in terms of their dominance of the rest of the league.

Goalkeeper Gregory Coupet [pic, not mine], a local Lyon boy, has a high-school stadium named after him and a line of boys' sportswear; midfielder Juninho--a Brazilian, only uses one name--you know those guys are good--is devastating on free-kicks (impressive video even if you don't like soccer) and is on half the billboards in town. OL players make up about half of the French national team.

So almost by default I've become a follower of Les Gones, as they are nicknamed (it means "the kids" in Lyonnais slang, kind of like how the Montreal Canadiens are "Les Habitents"). It's a stretch to say I'm a hardcore fan but I do try to catch their games when they're on TV. One of these days I'm planning to take Boog down to Stade de Gerland [pic, not mine] and take in a match in person--tickets cost a little less than an NFL game back home, and they're relatively simple to obtain for the lower-profile matches.

As a side note, the broadcast rights to French-league matches are held by Canal+, which means that the Saturday games are exclusively on that premium channel or its subsidiary Sport+. This is roughly equivalent to having the NFL broadcast only on HBO, and means that a lot of people unwilling to pay 50 euros a month on top of their cable bill pile into bars to watch the games.

Anyway, last weekend Lyon played Girondins Bordeaux in the final of the Coupe de France, and the city erected a big screen in Place Bellecour so fans could watch. After getting the kids to bed I headed down the street to watch.

The mood was mostly subdued, as Lyon's attack had been ineffective all game at penetrating Bordeaux's defence--the outmanned Girondins wisely pulled everybody back into the box to defend and only went forward on the counterattack. Despite a handful of chances, OL had failed to convert and the score stood 0-0 in the second half.

The crowd was not huge in Place Bellecour, as large numbers of fans had obviously chosen to watch at home (this game, part of a nonleague tournament, was televised on free TV) or actually go to the match at Stade de France in Paris (2 hrs by TGV), but there were a good number of people standing around drinking beer and watching the game.

Aside: One of my very favorite things about France is that there is no such thing as a public-consumption law. You can stroll into any store, buy a cold six of beer or bottle of wine, and walk down the street drinking it. You may sit in the park and drink your beer or wine. You may sit watching the river and drink your beer or wine. You may go get in your car and...well, maybe not. It is very civilized; no one will look at you as if you are a miscreant or troublemaker (unless, of course, you are in fact making trouble). You are merely enjoying life a l'exterieur, and your savoir-vivre is commendable. Only in America would consuming alcoholic beverages in public become a problem. What the hell is wrong with us?

Where was I? Oh yes, soccer: As the minutes of the secong half ticked down, it looked more and more like overtime was in the cards, or even penalty kicks if the overtime period failed to produce a goal. Then, in the 89th minute, Bordeaux suddenly had a corner kick in the Lyon end (wait, how'd that happen? I was watching the crowd) and before I had time to complete the thought I've got a bad feeling about this there's a perfectly-placed header and Coupet picking the ball out of the back of the net.

Two guys in the Bellecour crowd, Girondins no doubt, started going absolutely bonkers. People turned away in disgust, muttering. The crowd started to break up as people started wandering off. I looped around the edge of the crowd as the final whistle blew, noticing the security and unusual number of police gathering by the big screen.

Then people started throwing stuff.

Trash, bottles, whatever. I'm not sure if it was directed at the screen (showing the Bordeaux players hoisting the ribbon-bedecked tournament trophy) or at the cops, but as I was passing behind the screen at the time heading toward home, it suddenly became a little uncomfortable.

Discretion being the better part of valor, I valiantly ducked behind one of the big plane trees ringing Place Bellecour.

People were lighting flares now, which led to an interesting phenomenon: people getting away as quickly as possible, passing by people running toward the flares as quickly as possible [pic].

The flares poured smoke and illuminated everything with sinister red light [pic].

People started picking up the flares and throwing them. One came spinning out of the night sky, struck the branches above me, and fell at my feet next to a discarded Royale Cheese box, where it sputtered out and smouldered [pic, the flare looks like a discarded toilet-paper roll].

I watched the flare play for a while longer, but it looked like the situation wasn't going to evolve further, so I headed up one of the side streets parallel to Republique for the short walk home.

Coming up on the cross street, I realized I had unwittingly made the right decision: A phalanx of riot cops blocked the way, armed with shields and what I assumed were tear gas cannons (they looked like a cross between a leaf blower and a Ghostbusters accelerator backpack). I took a picture furtively, aimed from hip level--too furtively, as it was far too blurry and didn't come out.

But the cops let me pass without question (I suppose I looked pretty harmless) and I went inside, looking back over my shoulder at the mass of people who had begun to gather, chanting and lighting more flares.

Across the street from us, the staff at Haagen-Dazs brought in their outdoor tables and chairs in a big hurry.

By the time I got up to our apartment and out on the balcony, the crowd had started to set fire to trash cans, and smoke from the burning trash and the flares filled the street [pic].

At some point, the riot cops decided enough was enough, and deployed into lines crossing the street [pic; hard to see but the lines of people up the street are riot cops, and the yellow/red lights are fires]. The effect was immediate, someone must have yelled "gas!" because the chanting crowd immediately broke up and ran--seen from my high vantage point, it was like watching roaches scurry when the kitchen light comes on.

A few of them stopped below our apartment [pic], judging it a safe distance from the riot cops. They stood there for a few minutes, chanting something at the police, and took the time to light another trash can on fire [pic; that's what the four blurry guys in a circle are doing].

Interestingly, these particular youths were energetically waving an Algerian flag as they taunted the cops; there was definitely a sociopolitical subtext there, though unfortunately my inability to understand crowds shouting on an echoing street, coupled with my general cluelessness, prevented me from understanding exactly what that subtext was.

The police started to move up the street, and the fire-setters made a strategic retreat, leaving a burning trash can as they redeployed to the far side of the fountain in Place Republique, just out of sight of our balcony. A fire truck with a police escort crept up the street and doused the burning trash.

Thus ended the excitement, from my point of view, anyway. This little incident was very low-key as soccer-related disturbances go, not worth the label "riot". In fact, I found no mention of it at all in the next day's paper.

But it made me seriously rethink taking Boog with me to a match.

By the way, if this kind of thing interests you, I recommend picking up a copy of How Soccer Explains the World, a fascinating, thought-provoking read even if you don't care about soccer, and even if it does not in fact explain the world.


Oh yeah, we didn't go to Paris over the weekend; V got deathly sick and spent the whole 4-day weekend in bed. Still, we'll always have Paris as a backup--we're planning on going later in the month.


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