HomeSportsA continental competition, all in one neighborhood - UnlistedNews

A continental competition, all in one neighborhood – UnlistedNews

Eight minutes into the final of the CAN 18 soccer tournament, Mauritania’s national team players score three goals in quick succession.

Balls hitting the little goalie net sound like cannon shots. Boom. Boom. Boom. The last two happen so fast that many in the crowd miss them.

“Did they score?” asks the Ivory Coast fan squashed next to me, looking stunned. “Yes, twice,” a Mauritanian fan on my other side happily replies.

It doesn’t take long to understand that Paris’s annual soccer tournament in the 18th arrondissement is different: the stadium is a small grass pitch caged in the middle of the Goutte d’Or, the dense working-class landing spot for each new wave of immigrants to the city, a place where African wax shops and boubous tailors compete with bakeries and bistros among the busy streets.

The tournament was one of many around paris Inspired by the 2019 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, or Coupe d’Afrique des Nations in French, the continental competition is usually held every two years. The events have become so popular that the finals of one in Créteil, a southeastern suburb of Paris, were streamed on Amazon Prime last summer.

In la Goutte d’Or, Mamoudou Camara’s main goal was not to shine a positive light on immigration and community spirit in her neighborhood, which is tucked behind the Gare du Nord, Europe’s busiest train station, and is among the city’s poorest, grittiest, and most diverse areas. He was thinking that a tournament could help his friends survive the hot nights during Ramadan. He floated the idea on Snapchat, and by the end of that night in the summer of 2019, six teams had signed up. A day later, there were six more.

Rather than hold the event in a stadium far away, Camara and his friends decided to host it in their childhood nest, the mini-court in the center of the urban park where they spent summer nights and weekends, fighting over a ball and rounds of Coca-Cola or Fanta. (The loser called.)

It offers a very different atmosphere from the marble statues and manicured flower beds of the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens. On game nights, the park, Square Léon, is packed with older men huddled around chess tables, small children climbing on playground equipment, and older women in West African dress selling bags of homemade donuts and ginger drinks that both tickle and soothe the throat.

Just before the final match begins, a drummer sets the beat.

“In our neighborhood, we have all nationalities,” said Camara, 26. “We are proud to say that we are multicultural.”

About 30 percent of the 21,000 residents of this neighborhood were immigrants or foreigners in 2019, according to France’s national statistics institute.

Sixteen teams registered this year, the fourth edition of the event, to play 31 games in three weeks. On this night in June, we reached the final. The Ivory Coast, a veteran team that won the inaugural tournament in 2019, is back in orange and green, trying to recapture the title. They are challenged by Mauritania, a team packed with young players, many of them semi-professionals, dressed in yellow and brown. The shirts were created by a famous local designer who collaborates with Nike, and who has been invited to the presidential palace.

It’s just a sign of how the tournament has matured. This year, the neighborhood council has set up a small tribune on one side of the field. Everywhere, spectators are on their feet, claiming their places a good hour before the game starts.

When the referee blows his whistle, we’re standing eight rows thick.

The pitch measures just 25 meters by 16.5 metres, roughly 82 feet by 54 feet, roughly one seventeenth of FIFA’s recommended pitch size. It is framed by a low concrete wall, topped by a high chain-link fence.

The confined area makes for an intense game of precision, precise tricks, bursts of speed, and an exploding ball that resonates off the walls and crashes into the fence every few minutes.

This is football by the inch, with a team losing and winning the ball in seconds.

Camara and other organizers came up with the rules: five players per team on the court; no offside; corner kicks are taken; any foul after the fifth within the half results in a penalty kick; and the games last from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on their importance.

Two people broadcast live games and another camera is rolling for the referee to review the plays.

The first year, all players had to be local, but the rules have since been loosened, allowing players from other places to participate. But those who grew up competing on the court are quick to reveal themselves by using the side walls to their advantage, bouncing passes around defenders to their teammates and back to themselves.

Martin Riedler, who three years ago made the French team for the tournament, compared it to a boxing ring.

“You have to be alert all the time, which makes the experience very intense,” said Riedler, who attended Santa Clara University in California on a soccer scholarship. He has packed his squad with elite players who can hit the crossbar from the midline of an entire pitch, but also find the sand overwhelming. “You know you won’t sleep at night after a game.”

Players slam each other into the grass and then get up. They continually fight against the wall, so close that a bystander could brush them through the fence. They offer up-close renditions of spectacular maneuvers, tossing the ball over their opponents’ heads and spinning it around their feet. That’s one of the beauties of a small court, referee Bengaly Souré tells me. It is a compression chamber for technical plays.

“There is no space, but they create space,” he said.

When a player jumps up and kicks the ball into the air into the net, Souré turns to the fence and expresses his admiration.

The crowd is part of the fun. Spectators shout their observations over the sounds of African rhythms, blaring from the loudspeakers. The player wearing Mauritania’s number 7, playing for a team in Italy, is agreed to be a dangerous force. And while Ivory Coast is falling further and further behind, the game could change at any time.

“I’ve seen a team that is losing 4-1 come back,” said Makenzy Kapaya, a 37-year-old artist who grew up in Goutte d’Or but later moved to a less cramped apartment elsewhere. Like many in the crowd, he has returned to watch the games and meet up with childhood friends.

“If you have problems, people here will help you, no matter where you come from,” Kapaya said.

La Goutte d’Or, a dense, working-class area, is often in the news for unflattering reasons: drugs, prostitution, violence. Library closed by months three years ago because employees said they had been repeatedly threatened by vendors selling near their doors. Following the deadly police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk this summer and subsequent protests across the country, the local police station came under attack.

Éric Lejoindre, mayor of the 18th arrondissement, noted that local volunteers had been quietly helping with homework, cooking and housing for years. A group of therapists in the Goutte d’Or conduct regular listening sessionssetting up chairs on a vacant lot for passersby to unload their loads.

Despite all its problems, the neighborhood has a big heart, Lejoindre said.

“The locals know this, but sometimes we need it to emerge in a spectacular way,” he said. “For me, CAN is one of those times when the neighborhood can revel in being a little bit exceptional.”

After half time, the Ivory Coast players rallied and brought the score to 9-7. But then Mauritania disconnects his energy and his dreams. As the sky darkens on a dark night and spectators hold up their phones like flashlights, Mauritania scores again. And again. And again. Bum Bum bum. The players start doing little dances after each goal.

As Souré blows his whistle for full time, a crowd bursts onto the small pitch to embrace the young Mauritania team in a cyclone of squeals of joy.

Camara, who will be taking a few weeks off before beginning preparations for next year’s event, said he was continually amazed at the joy the small tournament had brought to the neighborhood. At a time when anti-immigration sentiments are growing and identity politics are exploding in France, he said he considered it a unifying event. “We thought we were just starting something for fun,” she said, “but we created something bigger.”

Red and white fireworks exploded over the small park in the heart of the Goutte d’Or. The celebration will continue for hours.

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed research from Paris.


Sara Marcus
Sara Marcus
Meet Sara Marcus, our newest addition to the Unlisted News team! Sara is a talented author and cultural critic, whose work has appeared in a variety of publications. Sara's writing style is characterized by its incisiveness and thought-provoking nature, and her insightful commentary on music, politics, and social justice is sure to captivate our readers. We are thrilled to have her join our team and look forward to sharing her work with our readers.


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