Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jeu de Chemin

Two hours before game time, one is accompanied on the very short walk between the subway station and Stade de Gerland in Lyon, France by men in windbreakers in their 20s and 30s familiar to anyone who has ever attended any sports event in any big city in the world. These worthies are how I learned the French for "who's selling tickets?" and "Who needs tickets?"

 They were also a preview of things to come. For this American fan and former sports journalist, the most striking thing about attending the Olympique Lyonnais-Auxerre Ligue 1 soccer match, my very first big league European soccer match, was how similar the entire experience was to attending a ball game in Boston or Philadelphia, and I suppose like attending one in Bogota or Phnom Penh. A ball game is a ball game is a ball game wherever you go. It's the universal Brotherhood of Man Wearing Face Paint After Six Beers.

 Except for speaking a different language, the other 31,488 fans who showed up that cool April evening could've been heading for any U.S. ballpark or stadium. They were mostly guys, mostly younger guys, but there was also a significant percentage of dads with sons and a smaller but still significant percentage of younger women in groups. The latter two demographics were the ones I was looking for. They are the universal sign that fistfights, let alone riots, are not gonna happen at this game. Soccer hooliganism is a dying thing in Europe, for the very same reason hooliganism died out at Foxboro -- a combination of much higher prices and vigorous security. The cop/security staff to spectator ratio inside and outside the stadium was about 1 to 6.3.

 Not that there weren't several things that reminded one you were in France and not on Causeway Street. Take the pregame meal. There were sausage vendors, but there were also kebab vendors, an option we don't have and ought to. On the advice of an expatriate U.S. resident who is also my daughter, we chose to dine at Nimsaki, a restaurant across the street from the stadium. In one sense, Nimsaki was Boston Beer Works. It served burgers, fries, big salads and a plethora of draft beers. But this was France. Nimsaki was also about 1 billion times better than Boston Beer Works. You could get a burger with foie gras, for instance. Most especially, the beer was better. Lyon was a big brewery town several centuries before the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, and they really have the hang of it by now.

 But in a land where eating and drinking are the real national sports, there's no tailgating. And once inside the Stade, a functional but elderly stadium that is due to be replaced when the new stadium funding controversy is resolved (I told you it was just like the States), there are no food concessions, only a tiny souvenir stand.

 Maybe that's due to the nature of soccer. Attending a game in person made it clear why many U.S. sports fans can't relate to the game. The rhythm of watching it is too different and too difficult. In this game, as in all soccer games, there were long stretches where nothing happened. But you can't take your eyes off the non-action, because you'll miss the four or five remarkable moments that DO happen, and they're all only moments long. The combination of concentration and ennui is very draining.

 Concentration was rewarded in my case. For one thing, our seats were in the very first row. At ground level, the level at which I watched many a Lexington youth soccer game in the 1990s, one could see both the incredible athletic ability of the players and the incredibly dirty nature of their play. Tugging, jostling, elbowing, etc. takes place at all times between all players at an NHL playoff game pace. If European soccer players are always bitching to the refs, and boy are they, they have cause, or would if they weren't fouling all the time, too.

 Olympique Lyonnais (OL to the tabloids) is one of the big-market powers of French soccer, a franchise which expects to finish in or near the top of Ligue One and to compete in the Champions League on an annual basis. Auxurre was the cellar-dweller of the Ligue, headed for relegation to the minors. (I'll bet soccer team owner John Henry is happy U.S. sports don't have that particular rule). As can happen in all sports, the basement denizen succeeded in dragging the power down to its own level of play. OL ground its way to a less than artistically satisfying 2-1 win, and got booed off the pitch at halftime when it was 1-1. Since I had no skin in the game whatsoever, it was all enjoyable sports anthropology to me, particularly when Lyon got the winning goal on a penalty kick, and Auxerre was consistently screwed by the laughably incompetent or perhaps just bored referee in the final minutes of yet another loss. That's something I've been watching at ballgames since attending old Eastern League basketball games as a child.

 The trip back to the hotel, which I will note the Lyon Metro does a much quicker and less uncomfortable post-game job of than does the MBTA gave me one final insight into how sports brings human beings together. Two of the straphangers in our car were middle-aged guys who'd clearly been OL fans for most if not all their lives. They were engaged in the inevitable post-game analysis. I understand written French OK, and spoken French rather less well. But I speak fluent sports. From the few words I did pick up, from body language and from a tone I've heard outside a hundred ballparks, I'm willing to bet cash money my translation of the topic of their conversation was accurate.

 They were discussing if the OL coach/manager needed to be fired.


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