This article first appeared in the July issue of Football Weekends magazine however things have happened so I’m now unleashing it on anybody who wasn’t able to pick up the magazine, it follows my travels to France for this summer’s World Cup including two games in Paris and a Scotland defeat in Rennes.
It’s a long read so settle in for Airbnb disasters, Moroccan death cabs, sausages in crepes, corner bar karaokes and Team USA.
Women’s football has started to take over a good proportion of my free time over recent months. Having always been a fan I started to grow frustrated at the lack of exposure that the domestic leagues in Scotland were getting and so started to go rogue in trying to promote the game. These rogue actions were noticed and I now do some work with the SWF (Scottish Womens’ Football) to help promote the game. With this heightened sense of purpose I decided to book up some flights and head to France for this summer’s Women’s World Cup where Scotland’s had qualified for the first time and in the process becoming the first Scottish side of any kind to reach a World Cup in over 20 years.
The plan was fairly simple, I would head over for a few days basing myself in Paris – where I would see two games including one featuring three time winners and defending champions the USA – and one in Rennes to see Scotland take on the 2011 winners Japan. My journey from Glasgow to Paris was pretty straightforward. After concluding that a bus to Edinburgh Airport and travelling from there would ensure more value and time in France for what would be my first ever visit, I arrived safely at Charles de Gaulle and took the RER to my Airbnb digs in Port d’Orleans on the opposite end of the city. I made the short walk from the metro to my apartment at around 6pm and so had plenty of time to dump my stuff and have a quick reccy before heading back out to my first game of the trip to see South Africa take on China at the Parc des Princes in three hours time, or so I thought.
Anyone reading this who has used an Airbnb, of which there will be many, will know that sometimes instead of a face to face interaction with your host you will go through a normally straightforward lockbox routine to gain access to your holiday home. After successfully completing the necessary steps to get my keys I turned the lock and pushed the door. It didn’t open. A bit strange, but I do have a history with not being able to open European doors, so I gave the lock another couple of tries but still found my entry denied. In the hour or so that passed, which included a biblical rain shower, it became clear that the one key provided to me would not be sufficient to officially start my trip. I contacted Freddy (my host) who assured me that only one key was needed and so after implementing his very specific instructions I filmed the result of me once again being unable to enter.”Ah”, replied Freddy, “There is a second lock, the cleaner has left it locked.” After a bit of negotiating where I did my best not to go full Glasgow on Fred it was arranged for his wife to come out to the apartment in about an hours time to let me in. I sat on the bench conveniently located next to the door and stared at a piece of modern art fashioned from a road sign that one of my new neighbours had created thinking how this was not how I wanted my trip to begin.
An hour later I was in, the riddle of the mysterious second lock and and the missing key was solved and I now only had one hour to get to the game. There was nothing else for it but to book an Uber and hope for the best. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way, haring through the boulevards of Paris with my Morrocan mate spending as much time texting on his phone as he was looking at the road. I wasn’t expecting the game to be a sell-out but even at that I was surprised with how close to PSG’s home I got with less than half an hour until kick off. There was no time to mooch around and soak in the atmosphere, that would have to wait for another time, and so I headed to the gate and went through the usual FIFA rigmaroles design to safeguard your entry. Once in I bought a tournament programme and made my way to my seat disposing of a hot dog and a soft drink as I climbed the stairs. The beverage itself was presented in a heavily branded novelty plastic cup displaying the name of the host city and was the first of many “freebies” that I could collect across the tournament.
It was my first visit to the Parc des Princes and I was impressed by my surroundings. Despite being seated in the top tier of one of the ends I was pleased with how close to the action I was given how far away the behind goal area at the stadium often looks on television. The stadium wasn’t full (the final attendance was announced at just over 20,000) so there was still enough free seats for me to see the PSG Crest/Eiffel Tower inspired seating pattern at the opposite end of the ground. The crowd was made up of a mix of locals, school children and supporters from either side with a block of Chinese fans decked out in red easily distinguishable in one of the four corners.
If you have never been to a big event women’s football game then the atmosphere will probably take a little getting used to. It is far more civilised, moments of excitement tend to be met with a roar a few pitches higher than you would normally hear at the mens game and chants and songs are yet to be fully formed. It’s very much a family affair so be prepared to be flexible with your seat and movements around the stadium as the game progresses. The Chinese would be favourites as one of the eight sides to have participated in the first ever “official” tournament back in 1991 but they were coming into things a diminished force from what they once were and whilst debutants South Africa would be the underdogs there was enough from their first half performance against Spain to suggest that they could pose a threat to their more established group rivals.
Despite my optimism for Banyana Banyana it turned out to be a dominant display from the Chinese with their superior technique ensuring they enjoyed the majority of the possession and territory. That said they were only able to score once, in the first half through striker Li Ying, and if the South African’s had demonstrated some better decision-making when hitting their opponents on the counter then the outcome could have been different but all in all as my tournament debut it was an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
There’s only one metro line, Line 9, that runs to the Parc de Princes which didn’t run particularly close to my digs so I decided to start the one hour fifteen minute walk back home but I was tired after a long day and as I approached Versailles I jumped in another death cab, the driver struggling with the concept of reading where I was staying from my phone and instead insisting on more than one occasion to take it from me as he weaved on and off motorway junctions. Safely deposited in the vicinity of where I was staying I headed to bed knowing that tomorrow, for me at least, was the big one.
I woke up surprisingly refreshed and took the short metro ride from Port d’Orleans to Gare Montparnasse where I would take the TGV from Paris to Rennes with the final destination Raozhon Park to see Scotland live at a World Cup for this first time in my life. I always arrive early when getting transport abroad, especially when my knowledge of the local language is solely based on any latent linguistic skills from school many years ago and so with 45 minutes to kill I jumped into the nearest news stand to but a copy of L’Equipe before joining the longest patisserie queue I could find within reasonable walking distance to grab a croissant or two. Rennes is only about an hour and a half from the French capital and although I was making the journey myself I had arranged to meet a friend who was already there for some pre-match beverages. There were a good number of Scotland fans on the train through to Brittany and as we departed the train at the other end we were greeted by some friendly volunteers who pointed us in the right direction. I ignored their cheery grins and fired up Google Maps to go and meet my friend in O’Connell’s Irish Bar near the old city. Whilst I am very much a believer that you should always embrace the culture and surroundings of any country you visit for me, a visit to the local Irish Bar is also a vital part of the traveling experience, mainly because I’m yet to find somewhere that hasn’t got one!
My friend was completing a PhD looking at perceptions of women’s football in Scotland and given my own involvement in the women’s game we spent a good hour drinking beer and talking through our philosophies on the game before heading to the fan zone a little deeper into the city. The fan zone itself was easy to spot. A giant FIFA branded gate with the word Rennes emblazoned on it signalled that this was the official spot for pre-match partying. Unlike the fan zone in Paris, more on that later, this was merely a loose border enclosing some of the local bars with a number of local agency stalls and entertainment dotted around the area. It was actually still under construction when we arrived with France due to play Nigeria in the Bretagne capital a few days later but what was there was ample for the Scottish hoards who had travelled. Some had come from Nice where Scotland had lost to England in their first group game, some from Brussels where the mens side had also lost, this time to Belgium, and others from even further afield like one fellow fan who had made the near 10,000 mile trip from Australia because, “you never know when Scotland will qualify for a tournament again these days.”
By this point our twosome had grown to a group as we were joined by some fellow acquaintances along with the boys from The Terrace, a popular football podcast and TV show in Scotland. We continued drinking for the next couple of hours talking about our favourite moments from the Scottish season just past before making the twenty-five minute walk to Raozhon Park home of Stade Rennais. There was time for one more pit stop though and with the majority of the Tartan Army heading onwards to the stadium our group took a detour to small corner pub within eye shot of one of the stands. The beer was cheap and the owners, whilst a little perplexed by this influx of Scottish thirty-somethings, were hospitable. So hospitable in fact that that they soon ceded control of the remote and were treated to a slew of Scottish classics performed by a variety of Scottish acts taken form the aforementioned A View From the Terrace TV show. We grabbed a can for the road and made the final ten minute walk through the park to what we hoped would be Scottish glory.
On first appearances Roazhon Park is a fairly standard four sided all seater stadium all the corners being filled in the upper tiers helped to add some differentiation. The bottom rows are raised considerably above pitch level and as a result it felt like it would be very difficult not to have a good view of the pitch. In an attempt to make the stadium look fuller (just over 13,000 were in attendance) the crowd was spread across all sections of the stadium meaning that the atmosphere, especially in my section, was perhaps not what it could have been. As kick off approached the hunger that accompanies beer consumption struck hard so I headed to the food stalls in search of some sustenance and In particular one item, the Galette Saucisse. Success! A single speciality sausage from the Brittany region of France encased in a cold crepe which is then fired onto a grill to give the outside edges some crispiness. Now it may have been the multiple pre-match beers but the fact that I ended up eating three of these bad boys should be a good indication that they were a treat to be enjoyed. I had done my research before heading over and was concerned that corporate control would see me deprived in my sausage quest so it was good to see that a little slice of Stade Rennais tradition had squeaked into the concessions amongst all the sponsor splattered options at France 2019. If you’re ever in Brittany or visiting Roazhon Park I would highly recommend giving one a bash.
The game wasn’t one to write home about if you were a Scotland fan. After the Japanese had put in a fairly lacklustre performance in their opening draw with group underdogs Argentina they came into this one at their relentless possession-dominating best and went in at the interval 2-0 up after strikes from Mana Iwabuchi and a debatable, but probably rightly given, Yuika Sugasawa penalty. At half time I abandoned my seat and joined my friend a little further down the stand finding myself beside three members of the Inverness Clachnacuddin women’s team who I had watched get beat 17-0 in the second round of the Scottish Cup just a couple of weeks earlier. Scotland continued to struggle to fully get into the game but the introduction of Fiorentina’s Lana Clelland with about ten minutes to go did at least give us something to cheer as her long range strike sailed into the top corner and set an early benchmark for goal of the tournament. It would be a second defeat for Scotland but it would again be a narrow one and with the perceived easiest game to go we headed back to that same corner bar we had taken over pre-match hopeful of progression. Some more beers were had and some more Scottish classics were played as the bar staff now joined in by rhythmically bashing the bar as we sang before a couple more beers at the fan zone. I left the group and headed for the last train back to Paris. It had been a whistle stop couple of days and I was looking forward to some proper sleep and to exploring Paris for the very time.
I woke around 11 and with no live game on the horizon I came up with a fairly loose plan for my day that involved eating and visiting the fan zone in Paris to watch some of the days action in other parts of the country. I had been tipped off about an exhibit at the Institute for the Arab World that shared the story of football in the area and so I jumped on the metro before getting off a few stops early so I could take a stroll in the afternoon sun. I was rewarded with this decision a few minutes later when I was greeted by a vibrant market where I felt obliged to not only buy a baguette and some wine but also join one of the longest queues for cheese I ever had. As a traditionally dressed trio sang, what I assume, was the best of French folk I realised that I was living every French stereotype in the book. I made my way to a nearby park to consume my haul before continuing on to the exhibit.
The exhibit itself was excellent. I consider myself a fairly well read football fan but I’m willing to admit that football in the Arab World, other than the stories of female oppression and financial corruption we all see, particularly in relation to the 2022 World Cup, is not one of my specialist subjects. The exhibit tracked the history of the Arab game, including some its most notable figures, as well as some of the clubs that had helped grow the game. There was also a number of items linking the Arab World to the success of the French national side including a full screening of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. As the son of Algerian parents Zizou is perhaps the Arab World’s greatest contribution to the footballing world to date. It was also interesting reading more about fan culture, particularly in North Africa and the references to the Jordan national women’s side, the first from the Arab World, was a nice nod to the events currently going on in the French capital.
I took the scenic route to the fanzone, walking through the bustling cobbled streets, ducking and weaving through numerous selfie sticks as couples looked for that perfect castle shot. Unlike in Rennes the fan zone in Paris was far more closely guarded with searches and bag checks required before you could gain entry. It was a fairly big space in the Jardins de Nelson Mandela with two large screens showing the Netherlands v Cameroon match from Valenciennes. Fans were laying on the grass or in deckchairs with some more hiding from the sun in what little shade there was around the perimeter. I grabbed myself a beer, of course in a novelty cup, and searched for somewhere to sit at which point I bumped into some of the folk that I had met in Rennes the day previous. After we watched an entertaining win for the Dutch we headed to one of the local bars to do the one thing that we are Scots are conditioned to do, drink many beers.
People watching from the bar in Paris is maybe one of my new favourite past times as over the course of the next few hours we saw a dispute between a motorbike owner and the man towing it away where the owner of the bike decided that the best thing to do was to abandon his partner and jump in the tow van before returning an hour later having freed his wheels. There was a Jean Paul Gautier flash mob, with the sailor attired youngsters handing out free samples of the fashionistas latest scent and there were a ton of highly inebriated French rugby fans in town for the Top 14 Final at Saint Denis that evening. Whilst everyone in the group was a little annoyed at the missed opportunity to go to the game itself, the entertainment provided by the group of Clermont fans who had decided to become our friends more than made up for missing the match. We continued to drink and eat the night away before jumping on the last metro back to our respective digs.
The next day I woke up feeling the affects of three days of fairly heavy drinking and so enjoyed a lie in before going and meeting the boys for some lunch and a second trip to the fan zone ahead of my final game of the trip again to the Parc de Princes as a USA side who had put a World Cup record thirteen goals past Thailand took on Chile in front of what was being billed as a near capacity crowd. Earlier that morning I headed to the two temporary museums situated near the fan zone. The first set up by FIFA giving a history of the Women’s World Cup and the second set up by FARE at Diversity House looking at the journey of women’s football as a whole and the struggles it has faced and still does in its pursuit for equality. Both were free and fairly interesting and provided a good alternative to sitting and downing beers early on a Sunday morning.
Another friend had made their way out to France the previous day and it was with him I would be heading to that evening’s game. Whilst I was wrestling with the affects of my cumulative hangover Roddy had taken the time to visit Stade Bauer, the home of Red Star FC, and Saint Denis. I had a little regret that I hadn’t done the same but I really needed to sleep! After we watched the end of the Sweden v Thailand game, the Asian side only losing 5-1 this time round, we made the 45 minute (and one change) metro ride from from Les Halles to Saint Cloud. Despite arriving a full 90 minutes before kick off the atmosphere was already bouncing and this was clearly going to be the biggest game of my trip as star spangled banners were waved to the beat of chanting from the far travelled Chilean fans. It was a stark contrast from the fairly serene events of the South Africa v China match at the same stadium a few days earlier but was exactly what I needed to help me push through for my final evening in the city. After absorbing our surroundings we headed into the stadium. Being Scottish and well, ginger, I had caught the sun pretty early on during my trip and with temperatures climbing by the day I was relieved to find my seat in the shade in the upper tier behind the goal. All my tickets had been purchased for just 9€ and on each occasion I was more than happy with the seat I had been afforded. This though was perhaps the best of the bunch as it was situated in the middle right behind the goal. Unlike my slightly somber experience in Rennes I was seated beside a couple of brightly attired and vocal Chilean fans as well as of course huge swathes of American fans who had made the journey over in the hope of seeing Jill Ellis’ side claim a fourth World Cup.
The USA, in women’s football terms, are a juggernaut, not only on the pitch but also off it, outstripping their male counterparts both in terms of commerciality and on field success, although the fight for equal pay still rumbles on. Chile on the other hand are still relative minnows in the women’s game and so with the South American’s 3-0 down after just 35 minutes after two goals from Carli Lloyd and a Julie Ertz header put the US in charge you feared the worst. Chile though, unlike the Thais, had a not so-secret weapon when combating the American onslaught in the shape of PSG goalkeeper Christiane Endler. Widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world her exploits including a spectacular diving save from a Christen Press header ensured that the scoreline remained at 3-0 up until the final whistle. Despite the one sided nature of the scoreline the Chileans had put up a good fight and whilst they failed to create a single chance the atmosphere on the evening was by far the best over the five days.
Post match we went in search of a bar for some late night food and a couple of beers before we headed our separate ways with both departing Paris at opposite ends of the following day. My Monday was spent doing the usual tourist things, I made my lunch spin out over a couple of hours to prevent having to lug my bag about in the near 30 degree heat before picking up the compulsory fridge magnet although disappointingly I had to wait until I retuned home and order online to add a pin badge to my collection. All in all it was a successful trip, I had visited a new country, met some new friends and caught up with some old ones all whilst and taking in my first World Cup. Scotland ultimately failed to qualify from the group after a heartbreaking 3-3 draw, with the Tartan Army having been left gobsmacked at the loss of a 3-0 lead with just 14 minutes to go but in making the tournament itself the side had still achieved more than any other had before. Women’s football, if you haven’t yet, you should really give it a try.
Remember you can now follow Leading the Line via Twitter @LeadingtheLine. Here there will be live insight from the games, comments on the breaking stories from the world of women’s football news as well as early sight of what will be coming via the podcast and on the website. It’s right good!