ALLOWING EVERYONE TO PLAY: THE SUCCESS OF LES BANLIEUES IN FRANCE

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It came from concrete – street football has long been the lifeblood for poorer communities in France; but now with the success of the national team, more attention is being paid to Les Banlieues.

France’s recent success was born of a group of individuals who came together on the world’s biggest stage to deliver glory through acceptance of one another’s characters, a far cry from yesteryear where grumblings of discontent and individuality long tarnished the image and playing fortunes of Les Bleus. Football has often been used in France as a cure for society’s ills, a banner for success and a way of bringing together a country that combines various cultures. Thanks to the new wave of ‘street footballers’ this could be the start of a breakthrough in working towards a more harmonious France.

Kylian Mbappé, the poster boy of modern French football, was born and raised on the banlieue (a word used to describe the courts centred around the housing estates) and it is this young man that symbolises all the skills and traits that street football preaches. He is not the only player to learn his trade on these concrete schoolyards though, and various cities round France house these cages; but the centre of excellence is often credited to be Marseille.

Marseille was discovered around 600 BC by Greek mariners and was used as a gateway between the old empires of Greece and Rome to the rest of Northern Europe. The nation’s biggest harbour is a sprawling metropolis of varying cultures, backgrounds, styles and nationalities, and within the current climbs a perfect way to describe France.

Graffiti and street art is a large part of Marseille culture. Open walls are seen as a canvas to the various artists that call this city home. The nature of the art ranges from Political views, musical taste to the city’s great love Olympic Marseille. The art is a nod to the edge the city has, that makes it different to any other city within the country. One district named Cours Julien is a now one of the places to be seen and houses many different bars and clubs that embrace all culture and music.

It is down these sun-kissed cobbled streets and graffitied buildings that you will find the famous football courts of Friche La Belle De Mai, and the skills on display here represent everything wonderful about some of the football France displayed at the tournament.

It is on these concrete pitches that some of the sport’s best players have been born and raised. Zinedine Zidane was the first, coming from Marseille and Algerian descent, and is the symbol of some of the acceptance the streets give. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from; you wait your turn and then it is winner take all.

“You just come, bring your ball, and just play football” is the tag line but when you enter the pitch it is all business. As Jeremy Lynch and Billy Wingrove of the F2 freestylers recently experienced, this game is not to be taken lightly. What the streets and Les Banlieues teach is that you are out here to win but not just win but it has to be in the right way. The basis of the game is skill, pace and passion.

Street football is a representation of all that is Marseille. Graffiti and art is all subjective, you create your own picture and vision. Each player is different and the courts are the canvas for these players like the blank walls for the artists. There is no team structure per se an 11 a side game, the players are free to play as they see fit and skills are rewarded as much as a goal.

Goals and skills happen in a flash and those who watched the World Cup bore witness to this wonderful version of the game in France’s sparkling win over Argentina. The fearlessness and speed at which Mbappé corralled the ball and sped towards goal every time he received it, is a nod to the skills seen every day on the concrete courts across France. A key component of the Les banlieues is that the game is always observed and greeted by an audience ready to voice its displeasure if you don’t deliver.  


“The ribbing, trash-talk, there’s certainly a psychological element to it. Sometimes in the tournaments you can hear them shouting things like ‘kill him’. We grew up with that. That’s why when you become pro and you’re up against an opponent, you know you have to just make the pass and make the difference.”

This is a quote from newly-acquired Manchester City star Riyad Mahrez, who recently filmed a documentary that delved into French street football. The style of these players that are picked up is full of panache and bravado very much akin to the hip-hop that is vastly popular with the national team. Style is everything to these players and like hip-hop it can often be grimy, blunt and in your face. But within the football there is poetry and skill, and an underlying confidence that you need to succeed on the pitch and in life.

The two documentaries reveal a side to the courts that go beyond football and open an opportunity to prove that street football can be served as a positive influence in the communities. Young coaches from the area preach that not all players may make it professionally, but more and more players are being picked up from the local street courts and clubs that have risen in these communities.

Professional clubs round France are now paying more attention to the young street players and are adapting coaching methods to utilise these young players. The skills are there, the confidence and passion and added with professional coaching in terms of tactics and fitness clubs have the potential to hit upon a treasure chest of talent. Clubs such as Lyon and Le Havre have found talent in these areas such as Mahrez, Karim Benzema and Nabil Fekir.

One main thing you notice from the video filmed by the F2 is that all cultures are welcome. Marseille is a melting pot of different backgrounds and nationalities and although they have been questioned over their reputation these places are a sanctuary for children and a breeding ground for the new talents carrying the flag for French football.

Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembélé are the main proponents of these pitches representing the national team, but these players are now accepted as part of the team and mixed with other styles of the vast French squad. Fast-forward eight years from the mutiny in South Africa and France are now the champions of the world, and if the Instagram stories are anything to follow the squad could not be happier or more in tune with representing their country at the highest level.  The current side, like the street courts and the country itself is comprised of a wonderful mix of diversity. From Africa to the Caribbean, the squad seems to have accepted one another and it feels like finally they are being celebrated instead of stigmatized.

Antoine Griezmann, Atlético Madrid star striker, spent a large part of his football career in Spain, starting at Real Sociedad from the age of 14 before moving to Madrid. His approach to the game has been defined by his experience in Spain but even he appears to have bought into the spirit that has been built within the camp. Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté are of African descent but their roles and stance in the team could not be more different to the squad of 2010 where a collapse and early group exit alongside training boycotts drew criticism from all corners and was quietly blamed by some of the players who were born of different cultures.

Pogba has become a leader and voice in the dressing room, famously shown banging on the table during the second round clash against Argentina rousing his compatriots to go out and face Messi. Kanté is the quiet hero, teammates and fans alike laud the affable midfield dynamo and have been chanting his name since the tournament ended. The togetherness only seems set to continue and the wave of talent France have in reserve only suggest this could be the beginning of a glorious period of success for a nation that has had its fair share of problems on and off the pitch. Other nations could take a leaf out of this new French book. In the meantime, players of all ages will continue to take to the courts in the hopes that they can emulate their heroes.

Ballon Sur Bitume (concrete football) helps to serve as so many things to many different people and is a reminder to society that the path to a better way is through acceptance – whether that be your beliefs, culture or style, just don’t forget that the winner stays on.

BY ED SUMMERS