By Tom Davidson
As the Eurostar edges closer to Paris, passengers catch a glimpse of the city’s infamous banlieues – a term often translated as ‘suburbs’ but perhaps best left in the French for the connotations it bears.
Before reaching the Gare du Nord, the train cuts through the heart of the départment of Seine-Saint-Denis, where, unlike the idyllic suburbia of American sitcoms, social problems are rife.
These poverty-stricken north-eastern banlieues made headlines for the riots they played host to in 2005 and, after years of neglect by both left and right-wing governments, continue to suffer from high crime and unemployment rates.
Whilst tourists close their books and gather their belongings, they are met by the sight of the graffitied brickwork and towering apartment blocks of the disadvantaged districts that lie in the shadows of the City of Light.
A stone’s throw from the tracks, the Stade de France, the national football team’s stomping ground, stands tall. Slightly further east, you’ll find Bondy, home to 19-year-old phenom Kylian Mbappé – the golden boy of the country’s 2018 World Cup-winning side.
On 15th July, in a spectacle to celebrate football coming à la maison, the masses poured onto the Champs-Elysées and sang as Mbappé’s face and those of his compatriots were projected onto the Arc de Triomphe.
As the names of the nation’s new heroes and their hometowns resonated from the loudspeakers, revellers would have been forgiven for not noticing one simple fact: Eight of the 23 players had started their path to World Cup glory in Paris’s outskirts.
Although stigmatised as gang-riddled ghettos, the banlieue is now, more than ever, emblematic of the country’s in bloom football scene. Here, children of all ages play on worn, concrete pitches until night falls and darkness prevents them.
Often found at the foot of drab high-rise apartment blocks, these pitches are known as city stades and have cultivated a style of play that favours the most intuitive, agile and daring of players – those not afraid to risk their reputation for the sake of an audacious stepover-nutmeg combo. Riyad Mahrez and Paul Pogba, who grew up in Sarcelles and Roissy-en-Brie respectively, both nurtured their technical ability out in the streets of the banlieue.
“There’s small pitches everywhere,” said Mahrez in a recent interview with Sky Sports.
“We were sleeping there, even. Every day, every day, everyone does this,” the Algerian international continued highlighting that, for many children living in the suburbs of Paris, football is as much part of their daily routine as a morning tartine or brushing their teeth before bedtime.
To them, the sport transcends the mere concept of a hobby – it’s a way of life entrenched in the urban culture of the banlieue.
In their documentary ‘Concrete Football’ (currently available on Netflix), filmmakers Jesse Adang and Syrine Boulanouar offer an absorbing insight into the world of street football that reigns in the housing estates of suburban Paris.
‘Concrete Football’ shows why players like Mbappé, Mahrez and Pogba are so unique. In a game of street football, the emphasis is not on cross-field passes or aerial duels but rather close control, fast interplay and bursts of pace – ‘on-the-deck’ football played at its most effective.
It is therefore no surprise that the game’s most technical players began their journeys in the outskirts of Paris. Les Ulis, a commune located in the south-western banlieues, has exported the likes of Patrice Evra, Anthony Martial and Thierry Henry – the latter considered by many as one of the greatest French talents of all time.
On the opposite side of the capital, a few RER stops short of Charles De Gaulle airport, lies the Cité des 3000 – an estate bearing the nickname of the 3000 council houses built there in the in the 70’s.
Found in the commune of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where over a quarter of inhabitants live below the poverty line, the Cité des 3000 suffers from the vilifying stereotypes bound to the Parisian banlieue, often portrayed as a hotbed of delinquency and police brutality.
As children, Moussa Sissoko (currently of Tottenham) and Alou Diarra (a former France international) called the Cité des 3000 home. In spite of its reputation, there are certainly worse places for two aspiring footballers to have grown up.
In Fact, in 2006 the estate was dubbed a “football academy” by French publication Le Monde.
The estate neighbours a plethora of facilities; grass and artificial pitches, a small stadium, and a city stade ironically named after Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
Add in a few eager youngsters with a tatty ball and it’s clear why the Cité des 3000 possesses all the ingredients to make it a real melting pot for footballing success.
In Russia, the Parisian banlieue stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight, earning the global recognition it deserves as a football factory.
Whilst for many, France’s second star simply marks another triumph, it brings hope and opportunity to those living precariously at the periphery of the capital.
Even though the 2018 World Cup now seems but a distant memory, it is important that we continue to highlight France’s budding football culture and the mobility shown by those blossoming within it, where they have come from, and why they deserve all of the credit that they get.
Photograph: Eric Salard via Wikimedia Commons