I spent last weekend becoming better acquainted with the French National League, heading up to Saint-Ouen on Friday night to see Red Star 93 take on GFCO Ajaccio at the Docteur Bauer Stadium, then attending the Paris F.C. vs l’Aviron Bayonnais in the cavernous Stade Charléty on Saturday evening. (This is the second time I’ve written about Red Star – more here.)
The National division is effectively the third tier of French football, and Red Star, having just been promoted, are having a difficult time of it, especially at home. They’ve only won three games – one at home, two away (including a freakishly high 4-0 result against Paris F.C. at the Stade Charléty). So hopes were low coming into Friday night’s match, and were repayed by an insipid performance, with the Saint-Ouen side giving away an early goal. Red Star’s listless defence was repeatedly breached by an enterprising Ajaccio side, and they were lucky to go in only a goal down at half-time.
The second half began positively for Red Star, as they began to put together the kind of passing and movement that they’ve proved capable of in the past. But then, on 56 minutes, Ajaccio’s Colleredo scored the second, and Red Star had virtually no response. A frantic round of substitutions followed, but it made no difference. At the end of the game, as booing rang out, only two Red Star players came over to acknowledge the crowd. One lingered, and ended up being involved in a verbal spat with the fans. 2-0 to Ajaccio.
Getting to Red Star’s stadium, you leave the Clignancourt metro station and pass the huge markets at Saint-Ouen. In contrast, you can arrive at the Stade Charléty on a tram – and the station’s right next to the turnstiles. Running late, I climbed from the tram and heard the referee’s whistle signalling the start of play. But I was in my seat with three minutes gone, in time to see Paris FC’s well-taken goal in the fifth minute.
I thought I was in for a free-flowing and entertaining game, but instead things settled into a niggly pattern, with some hard tackling down the sideline, tight passing but little expansive play. I settled into trying to judge the capacity of the stadium (it’s about 20,000) and guessing how many people were in the crowd (about 300-400, I’d say). It was well into the second half before Arnaud Souquet went on an audacious solo dribble from near the halfway line that ended with him putting it past the Bayonne keeper from about 15 yards. Soquet’s run was achieved in part through passing the ball past opposition players, who each panicked in turn. The Paris FC forward showed real class and composure, and it’s little surprise that he’s been called up to the French under-20 squad. The Bayonnais turned up the heat on 90 minutes, with a brilliant curling goal from distance that made the added time distinctly uncomfortable for the home side.
During the game, I noticed something: goalkeepers, rather than taking long kicks downfield in the English fashion, were passing the ball to well placed defenders, who then tried to work attacking moves through midfield. This is the French third division, and everything’s played to feet. What’s the explanation? Cultural difference?