The tale of one France fan, 305 matches and 35 roosters named Balthazar – Football News

The tale of one France fan, 305 matches and 35 roosters named Balthazar

As Clement Tomaszewski entered France’s national stadium with his son Christophe to watch his country’s semi-final against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup, he hid Balthazar, a small young cockerel with white flecks on its wings, underneath his top.

Sat on the front row by the railing, Balthazar, attached to his owner only by a thin piece of string, stayed close, minding his own business, pecking at little bits of corn and bread and taking sips of water. All around him, French fans cheered as Lilian Thuram scored twice at the Stade de France to send Les Bleus through to the World Cup final.

“Nobody told me anything,” Tomaszewski tells The Athletic. “The stewards must have thought, ‘Well, his cockerel is going to bring France luck, we’re not going to forbid him from entering’.” And so four days later at the same stadium, Tomaszewski waltzed in with Balthazar under his arm.

For 11 seconds after France were crowned World Cup champions after beating Brazil 3-0, Tomaszewski, holding Balthazar, and his son appeared on the stadium’s giant screen. “That image went around the world,” says Tomaszewski, who has the footage on video cassettes at his home in Antibes, south-east France. “That’s how it started on July 12, 1998.

“If there was the slightest problem with the cockerel, I was to be banned permanently so I’d better watch out.”

The cameras pick out Tomaszewski and Balthazar in the crowd at the 1998 World Cup final (Antonio Scorza/AFP via Getty Images)

Tomaszewski’s devotion to the France national team actually extends back further. He has followed them for 42 years, travelling all over the world from Italy to Russia, ticking off 45 countries from four continents. France’s semi-final against Spain on Tuesday will be his 305th game.

“That’s about 19 full days in a stadium, 10 months away from my home in Antibes,” he rattles off, figures and dates etched into his memory. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Thanks to the iconic cockerel, which made Tomaszewski instantly recognisable, he has met French football legends and, in the past, has been granted access to the team hotel, behind-closed-doors training and even an unexpected tour of the highly secure Charles de Gaulle air traffic control tower outside Paris.

He is the only fan to be exhibited in the FIFA Museum in Zurich, where his small wooden World Cup trophy signed by 13 1998 world champions and his first ticket from June 16, 1982 are on display.

Balthazar and a miniature World Cup trophy (Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images)

Tomaszewski is indebted to the country which welcomed his Polish father and Spanish mother.

Having served 36 years in France’s foreign legion, his father, Frantz, bought a small farm near Bergerac in the south-west of France. In this region, it was traditional to usher a cockerel — the symbol of French sport and a lucky charm — onto the field before matches, so that is what a young Tomaszewski did when his older brothers played rugby.

“It always stayed with me,” he says, sitting outside a cafe waiting for Les Bleus to arrive at their Munich hotel. So much so that when Tomaszewski went to his first match in Bilbao, where France lost 3-1 against England at the 1982 World Cup, he carried with him a white cockerel and splashed a dash of blue paint on one side of its wings and a dash of red on the other to mark the colours of the French Tricolore.

“The bug came from that match,” says Tomaszewski, wearing a faded dark blue Adidas originals tracksuit with the French cockerel sewn on. “It was an exceptional atmosphere.”

Tomaszewski and Balthazar attend Euro 2004 (Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Tomaszewski and his friend Balthazar Recommandato were supposed to return to Seville for the 1982 World Cup semi-final between West Germany and Spain, but the trip proved too expensive. Balthazar died a few months later and so when, on the same date (July 8) 16 years on, his son asked what he was going to call the cockerel that he would take into the Stade de France, Tomaszewski chose “Balthazar” in honour of his friend.

Balthazar is, in Tomaszewski’s words, “immortal”. “Just like me,” the 76-year-old smiles.

There have been 35 Balthazars over the years from all over the world. For each tournament Tomaszewski either brings a cockerel from France or, if he flies to the tournament — he always sits by the “window” (he says the only English word he knows out loud) to ease his fear of flying — he buys a cockerel in the host country whether that be South Korea, South Africa, Brazil or in the souks of Qatar.

“They’re all Balthazar’s distant cousins,” the Algerian-born supporter says. At the end of the tournament, Tomaszewski returns the cockerel to its owner, their futures unknown — which bothers him slightly because they shared some “crazy” and “exceptional” times together.

Ahead of France’s Euro 2024 group game against the Netherlands in Leipzig, Tomaszewski brought with him in his campervan a black-feathered Balthazar with a striking red crest from a farm in Antibes. But times are not what they used to be and, with stricter stadium regulations, Balthazar is no longer permitted to enter the stadium.

Instead, he remains “calm”, according to Tomaszewski, in the vehicle.

Tomaszewski’s fondest memories of watching France have always been with his family, whether that was when France were crowned World Cup champions in 1998 with his son Christophe, European champions in 2000 with his wife Eliette or 2006 World Cup runners-up with his daughter Fabienne.

“I jumped for joy at some matches but there have also been moments of sadness,” he says, remembering France’s early exits at the 2002 and 2010 World Cups as well as those heartbreaks in the finals of 2006 and 2022.

Balthazar, Christophe and Clement Tomaszewski at the 1998 World Cup final (ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Tomaszewski, who was born in 1948, says his idol was 1984 Euros winner Michel Platini. But if there was one person he had to single out it would be captain-turned-manager Didier Deschamps.

“I knew him as a player and a European champion in 2000 and then as a coach and a 2018 world champion in Russia,” he says. “I will have experienced some of the finest pages of French football through Didier Deschamps. He has always been in the shadows. He wasn’t Platini, (Kylian) Mbappe, (Karim) Benzema, (Zinedine) Zidane, but he’s a man who’s consistent.

“When he’s friends with someone, it’s for life. He’s respectful. I’ve never cut the umbilical cord with those players.”

Tomaszewski and one of his many Balthazars attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Tomaszewski was forced to miss France’s last three games in Germany because of engine problems on the campervan, the need to man his town’s polling station and a concern about his wife’s health. But, having left Nice at 4am on Sunday morning via train, he finally checked into his Munich youth hostel 19 hours later.

But, this time, he decided against bringing Balthazar.

“It would have been too complicated with potentially 16 people in the dormitory,” the 76-year-old says. “I’m feeling a bit tired. I don’t have the same rhythm as I used to.”

But on the eve of France’s semi-final, Tomaszewski has come to the team hotel, a 10-minute drive from the Allianz Arena, two hours in advance of their arrival to ensure his banner will greet them as they step off the bus.

Tomaszewski and The Athletic’s Charlotte Harpur outside the France team hotel in Munich (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

Match day for him is living life to the full with fellow members of his supporters’ group — albeit there is no alcohol involved, a rule written in his association’s charter. “They chew peppermint chewing gum to deceive me!” he laughs. Instead, he looks forward to spending time with compatriots who have come from all over the world to watch the game.

Tuesday’s semi-final will be particularly special for Tomaszewski given his late mother’s Spanish roots. “I’m French first and foremost, but whatever happens, I’ll still be thinking about my mother,” he adds. “She will be with me (in spirit) at the stadium and she’s not going to tell me off if we win!”

Just after kick-off inside the Allianz Arena, wearing his dark blue shirt — patched up in places with needle and thread, but tired from the nine World Cups, eight European Championships and one rugby World Cup match he has attended — Tomaszewski will replace the number 304 stuck on by velcro with the number 305 to indicate yet another milestone.

“I met Didier Deschamps on July 2, 2000 as a European champion player,” he adds. “Now I hope to come full circle on July 14 in Berlin: for him to become European champion as a manager.”

(Top photos: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images and The Athletic) 

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